Click the link to read the article on the Sky-Hi News website (Kyle McCabe). Here’s an excerpt:
Six of the seven Colorado River Basin states agreed to a plan Monday, Jan. 30, to conserve water in the river and manage lakes Powell and Mead, a day before a federal deadline for the states to agree on voluntary water cuts passed. Politicians including Sen. Michael Bennet and Gove. Jared Polis applauded the six states’ collaboration…The six-state plan would not reach the 2 million acre-feet threshold, focusing many of its cuts on lower basin states, despite not having the approval of California, a lower basin state and the river’s largest consumer.
A news release from Bennet’s office quoted him as saying the plan “did exactly what was needed” and expressing his disappointment in California not agreeing to the plan. California instead submitted its own plan to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Tuesday. Polis said in a news release that Colorado will also continue to follow the Upper Colorado River Commission’s 5-Point Plan from July 2022, which was the upper basin’s original response to the Bureau of Reclamation’s calls for conservation in June 2022.
Politics and threatened litigation are replacing what is left of the water in the Colorado River as the seven basin states that rely on the West’s largest river try to reach an agreement to cut flows so power generation can continue at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams. The directive to find some sort of definitive plan for dam operations by reducing flows was issued by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is tasked with making decisions to prop up the river that has been decimated by drought and over diversion through the years. The proposals do not change any of the states’ water allocations, for now, or affect any existing water rights. The plans will ultimately become part of a more comprehensive effort being worked on by the federal agency.
It is more than a heavy lift for a river that was divided up under a compact forged more than 100 years ago in a remote location in New Mexico and subsequently shaped by regulations, court decisions and compacts that all coalesced into what is now known as the “Law of the River.”
“Instead of bending over backwards to prop up Lake Powell, officials should be making plans to save Lake Mead and utilize Glen Canyon as a backup facility,” said Eric Balken, executive director of Glen Canyon Institute. “There’s just not enough water to save both reservoirs, and Mead is more vital to the basin.”
The institute has long advocated for the draining of Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reservoir behind Lake Mead.
On Monday, six of the states sharing the Colorado River — California later detailed its own plan — submitted what they described as a Consensus Based Modeling Alternative to the reclamation bureau. While not a formal agreement, they say it provides a step toward helping the federal agency as it crafts an environmental review going forward.
Among other things, the alternative details:
Additional combined reductions of 250,000 acre-feet to Arizona, California and Nevada at Lake Mead elevation 1,030 feet and below.
Additional combined reductions of 200,000 acre-feet to Arizona, California and Nevada at Lake Mead elevation 1,020 feet and below, as well as additional reductions necessary to protect Lake Mead elevation of 1,000 feet.
Those potential reductions are designed to keep Lake Mead’s Hoover Dam in operation.
Click the link to read the article on the AZCentral.com website (Brandon Loomis). Click through for the photo gallery, here’s an excerpt:
Late last year, the federal government asked the seven states that share the Colorado River’s water to submit a plan by the end of January to rapidly cut their use of water or face mandatory cuts. Six of them found a consensus proposal andsubmitted their idea on Tuesday. The seventh — California — is an ominous exclusion, given that it is the largest water user on the river and could thwart efforts to preserve the system if it presses its rights in court. Even so, water policy experts found it encouraging that six states could come together to present the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with a state-driven option, one that fast-forwards through a plan devised 15 years ago…One of the proposal’s authors, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, said talks with California would continue.
“We absolutely intend to continue to work in good faith with California,” he told The Arizona Republic. “I don’t see the fact that that six states submitted a letter as any sort of declaration of failure.”
Reclamation officials have said river users must cut between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet to stabilize the system. Officials from the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — believe their plan will save 3.3 million. Each acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons and is enough to supply two or three households, though roughly 80% of the river’s water is applied on farms…
“You’re just rolling the dice on an extremely high-percentage chance that these reservoirs are going to continue to decline and you could go below minimum-power pool at Lake Powell and dead pool at Lake Mead,” he said.
“This is what climate change + an out-dated law of the river looks like: ‘There’s a problem of aridification. But on top of that, there’s a problem with the rules…The rules governing the system are not sustainable.’ — Jonathan Overpack via Twitter
The river’s biggest water user, California, didn’t join six states in a proposal to cut some 2 million acre feet of usage
For the second time in six months, states that depend on the Colorado River to sustain their farms and cities appear to have failed to reach an agreement on restricting water usage, setting up the prospect that the federal government will make unilateral cuts this year…
“Obviously, it’s not going swimmingly,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a water provider that is a major player in the talks. “It’s pretty tough right now.”
The proposal by the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — seeks to protect the major reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling below critical levels, such as when the dams would no longer be able to generate electricity or at “dead pool,” when water would effectively be blocked from flowing out of these lakes. Before above-average snows in recent weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation was projecting that Lake Powell could start to reach such thresholds by this summer.
One of the central tensions of these complicated negotiations is how to balance cuts between farming regions against those in cities, including major population centers. Agriculture uses some 80 percent of the river’s water and also tends to have the most senior rights, some dating back to the 19th century. The way this “priority system” works, residents of Phoenix would lose water before vegetable farmers in Yuma. Those who grow alfalfa in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys would keep their water before people in parts of Los Angeles.
Kightlinger, along with many other water experts and officials, says cuts of this magnitude and severity have to be shared, rather than doled out according to seniority.
“They can’t follow the priority system. That would be a disaster. That would be: We’re basically going to put all the cuts on the major share of the economy. That just simply can’t be reality,” he said.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
Six of the seven states that use water from the Colorado River have agreed on a proposal to leave more water in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. California, which has the largest and oldest water rights in the region, was the lone holdout. The proposal was sent to the Bureau of Reclamation as the federal agency considers adjusting the amount of water released from Lake Mead and Lake Powell each year…
“I think the fact that six states are willing to issue this letter without California being on board shows the gravity of the situation for them,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “I’m sure they all would have preferred to have California be a cosigner of this, and it just shows how seriously they’re all taking this.”
The six-state proposal, branded as the “Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative” would add about 1.5 million acre-feet to Lake Mead in each of the next two years. That’s roughly the same amount of water that is lost each year due to evaporation and inefficient infrastructure. The plan attempts to correct an accounting problem. Each year, some water users in Nevada, Arizona and California are legally entitled to water in Lake Mead that does not physically exist, because it evaporates off of the reservoir’s surface before it ever has a chance to flow downstream. The total amount of evaporated water varies each year depending on reservoir levels and weather. Accounting for that quantity of lost water could get the basin’s users closer to the needed conservation to slow the decline of water levels at Lake Mead. Without changes, federal scientists say the reservoir will continue dropping towards “minimum power pool,” the level at which hydropower generation within the Hoover Dam becomes impossible, and “deadpool,” the level at which water is too low to flow through the dam at all…
California released details of its own proposal to Reclamation late Tuesday. The state suggested the adoption of a water-saving plan it first outlined last October. Under that plan, the state would voluntarily cut back on its water use from the Colorado River use by 400,000 acre-feet – about 9% of its total annual use – each year until 2026. In a press release, the state’s Colorado River board wrote that its proposal would reduce water use while “protecting infrastructure, prioritizing public health and safety, and upholding the existing body of laws, compacts, decrees, and agreements that govern Colorado River operations.” California’s proposal emphasizes the state’s desire to follow existing legal structures for river management, and says further steps could be taken if water levels at Lake Mead dip below 1,000 feet above sea level.
Click the link to read the article on the Associated Press website (Kathleen Ronayne and Felicia Fonseca). Here’s an excerpt:
Competing priorities, outsized demands and the federal government’s retreat from a threatened deadline stymied a deal last summer on how to drastically reduce water use from the parched Colorado River, emails obtained by The Associated Press show…
“We are out of time and out of any cushion to allow for a voluntary plan,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told a Bureau of Reclamation official in a July 18 email…
As 2023 begins, fresh incentives make the states more likely to give up water. The federal government has put up $4 billion for drought relief, and Colorado River users have submitted proposals to get some of that money through actions like leaving fields unplanted. Some cities are ripping up thirsty decorative grass, and tribes and major water agencieshave left some water in key reservoirs — either voluntarily or by mandate. Reclamation also has agreed to spend $250 million mitigating hazards at a drying California lake bed, a condition of the state’s water users agreeing to cut their use by 400,000 acre feet in a proposal released in October. The Interior Department is still evaluating proposals for a slice of the $4 billion and can’t say how much savings it will generate, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in an interview…
Figuring out who absorbs additional water cuts has been contentious, with allegations of drought profiteering, reneging on commitments, too many negotiators in the room and an unsteady hand from the federal government, the emails and follow-up interviews showed. California says it’s a partner willing to sacrifice, but other states see it as a reluctant participant clinging to a water priority system where it ranks near the top. Arizona and Nevada have long felt they’re unfairly forced to bear the brunt of cuts because of a water rights system developed long ago, a simmering frustration that reared its head during talks…But state officials said when it became clear the federal government wouldn’t act unilaterally, it created a “chilling effect” that removed the urgency from the talks because water users with higher-priority water rights were no longer at risk of harsh cuts, Arizona’s Buschatzke said in an interview…
Reclamation is now focused on weighing the latest round of comments from states on how to save the river. Nevada wants to count water lost to evaporation and transportation in water allocations — a move that could mean the biggest volume of cuts for California — and some Arizona water managers agree, comment letters obtained by the AP show. But disputes remain over how to determine what level of cuts are fair and legal. California’s goal remains protecting its status while other states and tribes want more than old water rights taken into account — such as whether users have access to other water sources, and the effects of cuts on disadvantaged communities and food security. Reclamation’s goal is to get a draft of proposed cuts out by early March, then a final decision before mid-August, when Reclamation regularly announces how much — or how little — river water is available for the next year.
“Think of the Colorado River Basin as a slow-motion disaster,” said Kevin Moran, who directs state and federal water policy advocacy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re really at a moment of reckoning.”
Negotiators say the odds of a voluntary agreement appear slim. It would be the second time in six months that the Colorado River states, which also include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, have missed a deadline for consensus on cuts sought by the Biden administration to avoid a catastrophic failure of the river system. Without a deal, the Interior Department, which manages flows on the river, must impose the cuts. That would break from the century-long tradition of states determining how to share the river’s water. And it would all but ensure that the administration’s increasingly urgent efforts to save the Colorado get caught up in lengthy legal challenges. The crisis over the Colorado River is the latest example of how climate change is overwhelming the foundations of American life — not only physical infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, but also the legal underpinnings that have made those systems work.
A century’s worth of laws, which assign different priorities to Colorado River users based on how long they’ve used the water, is facing off against a competing philosophy that says, as the climate changes, water cuts should be apportioned based on what’s practical. The outcome of that dispute will shape the future of the southwestern United States.
“We’re using more water than nature is going to provide,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water agreements as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Someone is going to have to cut back very significantly.”
The rules that determine who gets water from the Colorado River, and how much, were always based, to a degree, on magical thinking…But the premise that the river’s flow would average 17.5 million acre-feet each year turned out to be faulty. Over the past century, the river’s actual flow has averaged less than 15 million acre-feet each year. For decades, that gap was obscured by the fact that some of the river’s users, including Arizona and some Native American tribes, lacked the canals and other infrastructure to employ their full allotment. But as that infrastructure increased, so did the demand on the river. Then, the drought hit. From 2000 through 2022, the river’s annual flow averaged just over 12 million acre-feet; in each of the past three years, the total flow was less than 10 million.
Another deadline to establish new cutbacks in water use in the seven-state Colorado River Basin is quickly approaching on January 31, 2023, as states continue their talks, as ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
In addition to the cutbacks, several other key decisions also lie ahead in the coming weeks, including how a $125 million, broad-based water conservation pilot program would operate, whether a permanent water conservation program known as demand management could work among the Upper Basin states, and how the third-year of an emergency drought plan, known as the Drought Response Operations Agreement, will function this spring and summer.
All are tied to reducing short-term and long-term demands on the drought-strapped river as part of a five-point plan put forward by the Upper Basin states last summer. In releasing that plan, the Upper Basin recognized its effectiveness would hinge on additional actions to reduce use in the Lower Basin.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation late last year had given the seven basin states until Jan. 31 to come up with a new agreement on water reductions, after an August deadline had passed.
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said talks were continuing but that more work and specific plans from California, Arizona and Nevada would be necessary to reach an agreement and take action.
“The basin states, the federal government, and the tribes have been working collaboratively and tirelessly to find potential points of consensus on short-term actions to protect lakes Powell and Mead,” Mitchell said Monday at a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Aurora.
“I continue to believe strongly that the Lower Basin states must take action to reduce their demands out of Lake Mead.
“We are moving forward on our commitments, but it is important to recognize that those commitments and that work alone mean nothing if the Lower Basin use continues as it has been,” she said. She also stressed the importance of considering what must occur in the Lower Basin before Colorado moves forward with widespread participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program.
The basin is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.
Last summer U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the states to figure out how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet by August, but no agreements have been reached. Now the states, along with tribal leaders and the feds are aiming to agree to cuts by Jan. 31. If no consensus is reached next week, it leaves the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts in the coming weeks.
As lakes Powell and Mead have dwindled, all seven states have had to get by with less water and federal forecasts indicate that is likely to be the case for several more years.
Since December, the water forecast has improved slightly thanks to heavy mountain snows in Utah and Colorado, according to Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“Snowpack and runoff in all of western Colorado and Utah is quite a bit above average … but from here on, it could get really dry just like it did last year. So folks need to be prepared to plan for a continued wet or a sudden drop to really dry or anything in between as they’re looking forward,” Garrison told the board.
Now 23 years into a megadrought widely believed to be the worst in 1,800 years, the highly developed river system is on the brink of collapse, with lakes Powell and Mead falling dangerously close to dead pool, a water level so low that, if it is reached, Powell won’t be able to produce hydropower and Mead won’t be able to serve the millions of people in the Lower Basin who rely on the river.
The river begins in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains, high in Rocky Mountain National Park. It gathers water from major tributaries in Colorado, such as the Yampa and Gunnison rivers, and throughout the Upper Basin, accumulating some 90% of the streamflow that it will provide throughout the seven-state river system thanks to the runoff from the Upper Basin’s deep mountain snows.
But since 2002, those mountain snowpacks have been shrinking, crushed by warming temperatures and fewer snow days.
Beginning in July of 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior ordered, for the first time, emergency releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs. But that has done little to restore levels, although the releases are credited with providing some protection to the power supply.
While Lower Basin states have been forced to begin cutting back water use under a special set of operating guidelines and drought plans approved respectively in 2007 and 2019, negotiations in recent months have failed to achieve the federally ordered cutbacks. Upper Basin states are considering new programs and actions to further cut Upper Basin water use, but are hoping for additional Lower Basin commitments before taking additional water use reductions of their own.
At the same time, the drought has continued, and this winter could be dry once again, particularly in the Lower Basin. In response, last week, the federal government announced it would expedite negotiations on a new set of operating guidelines designed to protect lakes Powell and Mead to help restore the river.
Under the terms of the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the river’s supplies are divided equally between the Upper and Lower basins. But because the Upper Basin states have smaller and fewer reservoirs than the Lower Basin, users here have had to cut back their water use as the drought has continued. At the same time, Lower Basin users have been able to rely on stored supplies in Powell and Mead, at least until now.
Looking ahead, Jessica Brody, who represents the Metro Basin on the CWCB Board of Directors, said she would like to see more time taken before critical Upper Basin decisions are made, including participation in the $125 million System Conservation Pilot Program, which is accepting applications through Feb. 1.
“I’m a little bit concerned about the Feb. 1 deadline when we don’t yet know whether the Lower Basin will be able to come to the table in terms of reducing the demands in the Lower Basin,” Brody said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Utah’s Washington County is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, made possible by the Virgin River which supplies the region and its multiplying suburbs with water. But drought and population growth have long plagued the river, and the mayor of Ivins, a small, bedroom community of nearby St. George, did not mince words when addressing constituents this month.
“There’s good cause to be concerned about water,” said Mayor Chris Hart during an annual neighborhood meeting in January. “We are running out.”
Hart said the city has run out of water previously, dating back to the 1960s — “but there was always a solution, because we hadn’t fully developed the sources of water. That’s coming to an end.”
“We’ve just about used up all of the Virgin River drainage and our only hope is that we can convince enough of us to conserve better,” he continued…
Hart, who served on the Washington County Water Conservancy Board, said much of the region’s growth is predicated on construction of the Lake Powell Pipeline, a $3 billion project that would funnel 80,000 acre-feet of Utah’s Colorado River allotment from the Glen Canyon Dam to the St. George area.
Today, the water stored behind them is so diminished that the federal government has warned of “system collapse.” The two reservoirs are dangerously close to dead pool, the point at which the water level sinks below the dams’ intakes. At risk are the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River water supply and a substantial share of the U.S. agricultural economy, not to mention the hundreds of bird species and every other living thing that depends on the basin’s rivers as habitat.
How did this happen? The river is legally overallocated, the basin is experiencing extended drought conditions, and climate warming is exacerbating the drought. Perhaps most significantly, consumptive water uses in the past 20 years have exceeded supply. Rather than reducing water uses a little bit year over year, those who control the river (water users, state and federal agencies) largely sustained consumptive uses by draining those reservoirs. Now that they are nearly emptied, that strategy won’t work anymore, and the region is in for a rough transition.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has initiated a process to substantially reduce water releases from Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams as soon as next year (see “Notice of Intent to Prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the December 2007 Record of Decision Entitled Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations For Lake Powell and Lake Mead” as published in Federal Register Notice – 87 FR 69042 on November 17, 2022). This will allow Reclamation to change Colorado River operations in the near-term without having to enact “emergency measures” (read: not subject to environmental review) as they did in 2022. This is taking place at the same time that Reclamation is working with stakeholders on a longer-term process to revise Colorado River operating rules post-2026.
In response to Reclamation’s most recent request for public comment regarding near-term changes to Colorado River operations, Audubon submitted a letter asking for considerations for birds and other living things that depend on the river. We expect to comment again once Reclamation issues a draft plan, likely in March.
Colorado’s attorney general is seeking to reinforce his office’s water-focused legal team so it could be prepared for upcoming fights over the Colorado River. Attorney General Phil Weiser, who was just re-elected to a second term, said his office needs to be prepared for litigation or negotiation with other stakeholders to defend Colorado’s water rights. He’s not asking for an overhaul of the office — his ask to the Joint Budget Committee is for two new positions, and water and natural resources make up an overall small percentage of his office’s total budget — but he noted that “the challenges with water are heating up.”
“The era of the lower basin states taking as much water as they wanted — up to 10 million acre-feet when they’re only entitled 7.5 — is over,” Weiser said recently…
Ideas on bolstering the water supply — or at least not drinking too deep from it — vary. Weiser said his focus is on protecting the state’s share. Lawmakers have said water will be a “centerpiece” of this legislative session. House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon, has also singled out lower basin states for overusing their allotment. Weiser noted the strain on the reservoirs and the pressure that puts on water users up and down the river. Navigating the legal rapids will require negotiation or litigation, he said.
“We’ve got to be prepared for either way,” Weiser told reporters after his investiture ceremony Thursday. “We are not going to be afraid to litigate and protect our rights, and as we can find collaborative solutions, we’ll work hard to do that.”
If lawmakers approve the request this spring for more water specialists, it would bring the department’s total staff working on interstate water issues to 11, including eight attorneys, according to budget documents. The internal team has already won legal victories against other states and the federal government, as well as saved the state money on outside experts, according to the proposal.
Click the link to read the news brief on the Wyoming Public Radio website (Will Walkey). Here’s an excerpt:
The Wyoming State Legislature begins its lawmaking session this week. One bill, called the “Colorado River Authority of Wyoming Act,” would create a board and commissioner to manage Wyoming’s water in the Colorado River Basin. The system drains about 17 percent of the Cowboy State’s land area and is critical for agriculture, energy development and residential use in cities. The entire Colorado River Basin is currently under stress due to drought conditions and human development in the Southwest. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) and Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) is similar to those previously passed in severalother states that depend on the Colorado River.
“We feel it’s very important to have those people that are actually going to be affected that live in the Colorado River Basin [to] have an opportunity to participate in these policy-level decisions that’s going to affect your everyday life,” Hicks said.
The commission would include nine members, including five representatives from the Green River Basin appointed by commissioners in Sublette, Sweetwater, Lincoln and Uinta counties. Plus, one appointee from the Little Snake River Basin recommended by commissioners in Carbon County, as well as the state engineer, the governor or a designee and an at-large member. The authority would meet once a year and would include an official commissioner appointed by the governor who could represent Wyoming in negotiations with other states in the Colorado River Compact, a seven-state agreement that allocates river resources. However, any changes to water rights would still need to be approved by the state legislature, governor and relevant federal authorities.
As Lake Mead continues to decline toward dead pool, federal officials are requesting the Colorado River states to offer major cuts in water usage.
Nevada has responded with a detailed and innovative plan set forth in a December 20, 2022 letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, calling for basic reform of water management throughout the entire Colorado River system. It is centered on protecting water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead with new rules for apportioning reduced water deliveries throughout the system.
The plan assures that water levels behind Glen Canyon Dam in the upper basin will not fall below a level necessary to protect hydropower production and the structure of the dam itself.
For Lake Mead in the lower basin the plan would set rules assuring that water levels cannot fall below a new “Lake Mead Protection Level” sufficient to provide an 18 month reserve for “public, health and safety” of municipal users.
The plan calls on the three lower Basin states, Arizona, California and Nevada, to offer a million and a half acre feet of reductions, in addition to cuts previously agreed upon in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). This new round of cuts calls for “equitable sharing of evaporation and system losses” among the three states in proportion to their “average annual consumptive use for the period 2019 to 2021.”
Reaching consensus on such an inventive, far reaching proposal, will take time. The seven basin states and the Interior Department have until 2026, when current regulations expire, to reach agreement on new rules.
However, one critical provision—the 1.5 million acre feet reduction in diversions from Lake Mead—cannot wait that long. It must be agreed upon and implemented immediately to avoid disaster.
Arizona and California have not responded in public. They remain on the sidelines, unable to summon the political will to either agree or to propose an alternative.
The reason Arizona and California are internally deadlocked can be summed up in one word: agriculture. Irrigated agriculture uses more than 70 percent of the water allocated to the two states from Lake Mead. A fair settlement will not be possible unless agriculture takes its share of the cuts.
Agricultural Irrigation districts in Arizona and California resist offering cuts, claiming an absolute priority under century-old legal doctrines. They claim an unqualified priority right to continue growing alfalfa for cattle feed that comes ahead of an adequate water supply for Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego and Los Angeles.
The Interior Department has the power to break this deadlock. The department, as water master of the lower Colorado River, has broad authority over water allocation and management. A federal regulation, known as Section 417, gives the department authority to limit agricultural water deliveries to that amount “reasonably required for beneficial use.”
What is reasonably required is a judgment that can take into account many factors, including the needs of cities, towns, power plants, mineral extraction, recreation, and more. And what is reasonable for irrigation allocations in normal years may be entirely unreasonable when Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam and the entire Colorado River system are at risk of collapse.
It is now time for the Interior to use its Section 417 authority for an expansive review of all agricultural use contracts and to reduce allocations to reflect a fair measure of burden sharing. This review should begin in an open and transparent process without further delay.
Bruce Edward Babbitt is an attorney and politician from the state of Arizona. A member of the Democratic Party, Babbitt served as the 16th governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987, and as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of the interior from 1993 to 2001.
The system for irrigating is vastly different between Wyoming and Imperial Valley, and because of this, water negotiators of the region have vastly different points of view. In the Green River Basin, there are 2500 gates diverting water onto ranchers’ lands, but in the greater scheme of things, the basin is essentially a collector system. Some of those far-flung gates are “unregulated,” or unmonitored. The Green River has 2,000 named natural tributaries. Accurately measuring the supply and consumption of water in such a system is a work in progress.
In the Imperial Valley, we have one gate diverting water from the Colorado River. It is where Imperial Dam turns water into the All-American Canal. While the Green River Basin is a collector system like the roots of a tree, ours is a distribution system like the branches to the leaves. The IID has 5500 gates. Since every one of them is monitored by the IID, water supply and consumption are easy to measure with gauges throughout the system.
Water management is a world apart as well. In the Green River Basin, there are thirty-seven small water distribution agencies, both public and privately owned, often with zero or a handful of fulltime employees. There are irrigation districts, conservancy districts, ditch companies, and canal companies. Ranchers, and often non-agricultural property owners, pay an assessment, or a flat fee, or a per-acre fee, or a price per share for water delivery. The water itself is owned by the state of Wyoming and is made available for free. The overseer of all this is the Wyoming State Engineer, which in turn has a representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, the governing agencies for the Upper Basin states.
In the Imperial Valley, the Imperial Irrigation District is the sole holder of water rights to Colorado River water and the sole manager for water distribution. Here, as in all the Lower Basin States, the Bureau of Reclamation is our overseer. With nearly 500 employees in its water division, IID outguns the whole state of Wyoming for water workers about 2 to 1. The Bureau also supplies IID’s 3.1 million acre-feet of water for free, and IID charges farmers $20 an acre-foot (af), a fee subsidized by revenue from the transfer of water to the San Diego County Water Authority. Industrial water users pay a much higher fee…
So far, the cuts that Mother Nature has forced on Wyoming and others in the Upper Basin states, and the cuts agreed to by Arizona, Nevada, and California, are far below the amount necessary to save the reservoirs from circling the drain in the next few years. Negotiators have until the end of this month to reach consensus on a plan to satisfy the Bureau of Reclamation’s demand for 2-4 million acre-feet of cuts in water use next year. We’re all unhappy in our own way on the Colorado River. Like the sparsely populated Cowboy state, we can only fight the good fight against the odds.
On November 24, 1922, representatives of the seven Colorado River basin states—Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming—gathered in Santa Fe, N.M., to sign the Colorado River Compact, cementing into law a regime for dividing the river’s water. Without exception, these men were newcomers to a region inhabited since time immemorial by Native American Tribes. Two of them represented states just a decade old, none represented states more than 75-years-old, and their purpose was to enable colonial settlers to establish a foothold through irrigation-driven economic development.
On the centennial anniversary of the creation of that consequential document, as Colorado River reservoir levels have plummeted to historic lows, Native American Tribes remain deprived of access to water rightfully theirs, and we see degradation of freshwater-dependent ecosystems throughout the basin, it seems worth asking whether the Compact serves us well.
Today, elected leaders of these seven states still regard the Compact as an essential, foundational document, and despite its flaws, it is still considered the bedrock of “the Law of the River” which also includes International Treaties with Mexico, federal and state laws, and regulations.
They point to the primary intent of the Compact: “to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System.” By 1922, “prior appropriation” was established as the law of the land within each of the Colorado River Basin States, meaning those who first took water from the river would have senior water rights and water developments that followed would be subordinated. If there wasn’t enough water to fulfill all the rights, the senior right would get water and the junior would get none. The negotiators from the “Upper Basin” states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming shared a concern that water users in “Lower Basin” states California and Arizona would put Colorado River water to use before they could (Nevada is also in the Lower Basin, but so few people lived there in 1922 they were not seen as a threat). The evidence: in 1901, irrigators began diverting vast quantities of Colorado River water onto farms in the Imperial Valley in California and the Yuma Valley in Arizona. The Upper Basin states were not putting anywhere near those volumes of water to use and sought the right to develop at their own pace in the future, without having to worry that the Lower Basin states would claim the entire Colorado River supply in senior rights. The solution in the Compact was to divide the Colorado’s water equally between the Upper and Lower Basins, regardless of the rate at which water was developed.
It is this “equitable division” of the Colorado’s water that many continue to view as essential. A century later, “equitable apportionment” between the basins still sounds reasonable, but if the seven Colorado River Basin States want to keep the Colorado River Compact in place, they have a lot of work to do, because it is indisputable that in 2022 Colorado River management is broken. The most visible problem is evident in reservoirs at historic lows and extraordinarily high risk of crisis-level water shortages for the 40 million people, and 5.5 million acres of farmland that rely on the river—but that’s hardly the extent of it. The Compact overlooked—or deliberately avoided—values we should uphold today as important, including equity for tribal communities and sustainable ecosystem management. Today’s states may view the Compact as essential to keeping the peace, but if they want the Compact to survive, they will need quickly to adapt the Compact to today’s standards by adopting rules and agreements that solve a host of problems:
The Compact cannot not achieve what the states defined as equitable apportionment with today’s river flows. Extended drought exacerbated by climate change has led to an average Colorado River yield of 12.4 million acre-feet of water in recent decades, while the Compact is premised on a flow of at least 16 million acre-feet. The Compact defines how to accomplish equitable distribution of water between the Upper and Lower Basins by prohibiting the Upper Basin from depleting flows to the Lower Basin below an average of 75 million acre-feet in any 10-year period, but there is not enough water for the Upper Basin to meet that obligation and develop another 7.5 million acre-feet of water for annual use. Moreover, as climate change increases aridification in the basin and the average water yield decreases further, the Upper Basin’s access to Colorado River will continue to shrink. In other words, drought and climate change have thrown a wrench into the Compact’s framework for managing the basin. Going forward, the states need either to find a way to fold the realities of climate change into a workable management framework or risk the ramifications of an uncertain future for communities, economies, and ecosystems throughout.
The states negotiated the Compact domestically, and without Mexico at the table they acknowledged both the Upper and Lower Basins would have responsibilities to provide water in event of a subsequent treaty; years later the 1944 Treaty was adopted, but there’s no clarity on which basin is responsible for providing the water. The fact that the states in 1922 saw fit to allocate the Colorado’s water without including Mexico speaks volumes about how their negotiators saw their neighbors to the south. Regardless, the 1944 Treaty guaranteed to Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet of water annually except in the event of extraordinary drought. While the Compact holds that the two basins should share the obligation to deliver that water when there is not enough over and above the U.S. allocations, there is no agreement on what that means legally. For example, does the Upper Basin need to ensure flows reaching the Lower Basin include an extra 0.75 million-acre-feet every year? What would that do to the Upper Basin’s chances of being able to develop its half of the Colorado’s water?
The Compact deliberately avoided incorporating allocations for Native American Tribes, who remain largely cut out of decisions about Colorado River management and in too many cases have not yet gained access to their water. This seems particularly egregious given that the Supreme Court ruled on the basis for determining Tribal water rights in 1908. Winters v. United States holds that Tribes could have an implied right to water based on the terms of their reservation, with seniority based on the Treaty date establishing the reservation. Today, the 30 federally recognized Tribes in the Colorado River Basin have secured rights to as much as 20% of all Colorado River water in the Basin. However, more than a third of the Basin’s Tribes have yet to settle their Colorado River water rights. Moreover, even those with settled rights still lack sufficient infrastructure to access their water rights in a meaningful way, and all the Tribes still lack a formal seat at the table where Colorado River management decisions are made.
The Compact did not recognize and does not acknowledge nature’s water needs. Nowhere in the Compact is there language recognizing the value of water to natural systems as well as the legions of birds, fish, and other wildlife that depend on freshwater-dependent ecosystems. That failure underpins a century of devastating losses. Several programs have been established under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, but too many of the Colorado Basin’s rivers remain unhealthy and at risk. Dozens of species of Colorado River fish and wildlife are listed as threatened or endangered, and the Colorado River Delta, a lush ecosystem of 1.5 million acres, was allowed to dry up and disappear in the middle of the 20th century. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has raised the prospect that within the next year or two, it may become impossible to pass water through the Glen Canyon Dam, effectively eliminating the Colorado River surface flows from the Grand Canyon. The Compact’s promise of water for development depends on healthy rivers, and the region’s economies are dependent on the sustainability of natural systems. Yet, in its application, the Compact has allowed harm to the Colorado River and its tributaries, every living thing that depends on them, and all of us who value it for recreational, cultural, and spiritual reasons.
The looming water crisis in the Colorado River Basin calls for urgent management adjustments and adaptations to meet the challenges of today. As the Colorado River Basin States consider how they will share the diminishing water supply, they should at the same time be rectifying the Compact’s mistakes, oversights, and omissions. Audubon will continue to advocate for management that provides improved reliability of water for the 40 million people who depend on it, increased benefits for Native American Tribes from their water rights, and sustainable habitat for the hundreds of species of birds and wildlife that call it home. The Colorado River Basin States need to prove this can be done through adaptation within the framework of the Colorado River Compact and the Law of the River. If they instead use the Compact and other venerable laws to argue these outcomes are not possible, they will be proving the legal framework will need more than adjustment—it will need complete reform.
Nevada water managers have submitted a plan for cutting diversions by 500,000 acre-feet in a last-ditch effort to shore up flows on the Colorado River before low water levels cause critical problems at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams. But the Silver State’s plan targets cuts in Utah and the river’s other Upper Basin states, not in Nevada, whose leaders contend it already is doing what it can to reduce reliance on the depleted river system that provides water to 40 million in the West.
“It is well past time to prohibit the inefficient delivery, application, or use of water within all sectors and by all users; there simply is no water in the Colorado River System left to waste and each industrial, municipal, and agricultural user should be held to the highest industry standards in handling, using, and disposing of water,” states a Dec. 20 letter the Colorado River Commission of Nevada sent to the Interior Department. “It is critical that Reclamation pursue all options that will help reduce consumptive uses in the Basin and provide water supply reliability.”
One option Nevada offers is for Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming to accept substantial cuts in the amount of river they tap to ensure enough water reaches Lake Powell to keep Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower turbines spinning and Lake Powell functioning as a reservoir…The proposal comes in the form of Nevada’s official comments to the supplemental environmental impact statement the Bureau of Reclamation is preparing for proposed changes to the operations of the drought-depleted reservoirs. One of three Lower Basin states, Nevada called on the Upper Basin states to reduce their withdrawals by a combined 500,000 acre-feet if Lake Powell’s level is projected to drop below 3,550 feet above sea level at the start of the coming calendar year…Today, the lake’s level is already far below than that, at 3,525.7 feet, just 35 feet above the point at which Glen Canyon Dam’s turbines would be damaged if water passes through the penstocks.
“The reason [The Upper Colorado River Commision’s] five-point plan doesn’t have any specific numbers is because we don’t know what’s ahead of us. We don’t know whether the runoff is going to be 7 million acre-feet or 20 million acre-feet,” Shawcroft said. “The real challenge is the hydrology. But we know for a fact that that we’re not going to be able to continue operating the river like we always have. The majority of the water gets used in the lower basin states, but does that mean that Upper [Basin] states are off the hook? I don’t think they are.”
Click the link to read the article on the KJZZ websits (Ron Dungan). Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado River Basin states recently gathered in Las Vegas for their annual water users convention. The states are trying to figure out how to get by with less water. The conference focused on a variety of topics, such as new technology, conservation and funding that will guide water users into the next century. But federal water managers say that new conservation measures need to be put in place or they will impose cuts.
Some water managers at CRWUA acknowledged a truth that is widely known but rarely stated so candidly: As the Colorado River crisis deepens, water to cities will not be cut off in favor of continuing to grow hay in the desert, no matter what the law of the river — which grants the most powerful water rights to the mostly agricultural users who got here first — says.
“If the literal enforcement of the law is that 27 million Americans don’t have water, those laws will not be enforced,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
The wisdom of building mega-cities in arid regions aside, the fact is that Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and L.A. exist now and rely on the Colorado River. And denying people water at their taps would be a public health catastrophe and moral failure.
“People migrate toward opportunity and you can’t stop it only at great moral cost,” said Kathryn Sorenson, a professor at Arizona State University and former director of Phoenix Water Services. “The cities have an obligation to provide water to the people who arrived.”
On a crisp day this fall I drove southeast from Grand Junction, Colorado, into the Uncompahgre Valley, a rich basin of row crops and hayfields. A snow line hung like a bowl cut around the upper cliffs of the Grand Mesa, while in the valley some farmers were taking their last deliveries of water, sowing winter wheat and onions. I turned south at the farm town of Delta onto Route 348, a shoulder-less two-lane road lined with irrigation ditches and dent corn still hanging crisp on their browned stalks. The road crossed the Uncompahgre River, and it was thin, nearly dry.
The Uncompahgre Valley, stretching 34 miles from Delta through the town of Montrose, is, and always has been, an arid place. Most of the water comes from the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, which courses out of the peaks of the Elk Range through the cavernous and sun-starved depths of the Black Canyon, one rocky and inaccessible valley to the east. In 1903, the federal government backed a plan hatched by Uncompahgre farmers to breach the ridge with an enormous tunnel and then in the 1960s to build one of Colorado’s largest reservoirs above the Black Canyon called Blue Mesa. Now that tunnel feeds a neural system of water: 782 miles worth of successively smaller canals and then dirt ditches, laterals and drains that turn 83,000 Western Colorado acres into farmland. Today, the farm association in this valley is one of the largest single users of Colorado River water outside of California.
I came to this place because the Colorado River system is in a state of collapse. It is a collapse hastened by climate change but also a crisis of management. In 1922, the seven states in the river basin signed a compact splitting the Colorado equally between its upper and lower halves; later, they promised additional water to Mexico, too. Near the middle, they put Lake Powell, a reserve for the northern states, and Lake Mead, a storage node for the south. Over time, as an overheating environment has collided with overuse, the lower half — primarily Arizona and California — has taken its water as if everything were normal, straining both the logic and the legal interpretations of the compact. They have also drawn extra releases from Lake Powell, effectively borrowing straight out of whatever meager reserves the Upper Basin has managed to save there.
This much has become a matter of great, vitriolic dispute. What is undeniable is that the river flows as a much-diminished version of its historical might. When the original compact gave each half the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, the river is estimated to have flowed with as much as 18 million acre-feet each year. Over the 20th century, it averaged closer to 15. Over the past two decades, the flow has dropped to a little more than 12. In recent years, it has trickled at times with as little as 8.5. All the while the Lower Basin deliveries have remained roughly the same. And those reservoirs? They are fast becoming obsolete. Now the states must finally face the consequential question of which regions will make their sacrifice first. There are few places that reveal how difficult it will be to arrive at an answer than the Western Slope of Colorado.
In Montrose, I found the manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Steve Pope, in his office atop the squeaky stairs of the same Foursquare that the group had built at the turn of the last century. Pope, bald, with a trimmed white beard, sat amid stacks of plat maps and paper diagrams of the canals, surrounded by LCD screens with spreadsheets marking volumes of water and their destinations. On the wall, a historic map showed the farms, wedged between the Uncompahgre River and where it joins the Gunnison in Delta, before descending to their confluence with the Colorado in Grand Junction. “I’m sorry for the mess,” he said, plowing loose papers aside.
What Pope wanted to impress upon me most despite the enormousness of the infrastructure all around the valley was that in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River system, there are no mammoth dams that can simply be opened to meter out a steady release of water. Here, only natural precipitation and temperature dictate how much is available. Conservation isn’t a management decision, he said. It was forced upon them by the hydrological conditions of the moment. The average amount of water flowing in the system has dropped by nearly 20%. The snowpack melts and evaporates faster than it used to, and the rainfall is unpredictable. In fact, the Colorado River District, an influential water conservancy for the western part of the state, had described its negotiating position with the Lower Basin states by claiming Colorado has already conserved about 28% of its water by making do with the recent conditions brought by drought.
You get what you get, Pope tells me, and for 15 of the past 20 years, unlike the farmers in California and Arizona, the people in this valley have gotten less than what they are due. “We don’t have that luxury of just making a phone call and having water show up,” he said, not veiling his contempt for the Lower Basin states’ reliance on lakes Mead and Powell. “We’ve not been insulated from this climate change by having a big reservoir above our heads.”
He didn’t have to point further back than the previous winter. In 2021, the rain and snow fell heavily across the Rocky Mountains and the plateau of the Grand Mesa, almost as if it were normal times. Precipitation was 80% of average — not bad in the midst of an epochal drought. But little made it into the Colorado River. Instead, soils parched by the lack of rain and rising temperatures soaked up every ounce of moisture. By the time water reached the rivers around Montrose and then the gauges above Lake Powell, the flow was less than 30% of normal. The Upper Basin states used just 3.5 million acre-feet last year, less than half their legal right under the 1922 compact. The Lower Basin states took nearly their full amount, 7 million acre-feet.
All of this matters now not just because the river, an unwieldy network of human-controlled plumbing, is approaching a threshold where it could become inoperable, but because much of the recent legal basis for the system is about to dissolve. In 2026, the Interim Guidelines the states rely on, a Drought Contingency Plan and agreements with Mexico will all expire. At the very least, this will require new agreements. It also demands a new way of thinking that matches the reality of the heating climate and the scale of human need. But before that can happen, the states will need to restore something that has become even more scarce than the water: trust.
The northern states see California and Arizona reveling in profligate use, made possible by the anachronistic rules of the compact that effectively promise them water when others have none. It’s enabled by the mechanistic controls at the Hoover Dam, which releases the same steady flow no matter how little snow falls across the Rocky Mountains. California flood-irrigates alfalfa crops destined for cattle markets in the Middle East, while Arizona takes water it does not need and pumps it underground to build up its own reserves. In 2018, an Arizona water agency admitted it was gaming the timing of its orders to avoid rations from the river (though it characterized the moves as smart use of the rules). In 2021, in a sign of the growing wariness, at least one Colorado water official alleged California was repeating the scheme. California water officials say this is a misunderstanding. Yet to this day, because California holds the most senior legal rights on the river, the state has avoided having a single gallon of reductions imposed on it.
By this spring, Lake Powell shrank to 24% of its capacity, its lowest levels since the reservoir filled in the 1960s. Cathedral-like sandstone canyons were resurrected, and sunlight reached the silt-clogged floors for the first time in generations. The Glen Canyon Dam itself towered more than 150 feet above the waterline. The water was just a few dozen feet above the last intake pipe that feeds the hydropower generators. If it dropped much lower, the system would no longer be able to produce the power it distributes across six states. After that, it would approach the point where no water at all could flow into the Grand Canyon and further downstream. All the savings that the Upper Basin states had banked there were as good as gone.
In Western Colorado, meanwhile, people have been suffering. South of the Uncompahgre Valley, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe subsists off agriculture, but over the past 12 months it has seen its water deliveries cut by 90%; the tribe laid off half of its farmworkers. McPhee Reservoir, near the town of Cortez, has teetered on failure, and other communities in Southwestern Colorado that also depend on it have been rationed to 10% of their normal water.
Across the Upper Basin, the small reservoirs that provide the region’s only buffer against bad years are also emptying out. Flaming Gorge, on the Wyoming-Utah border, is the largest, and it is 68% full. The second largest, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, is at 50% of its capacity. Blue Mesa Reservoir, on the Gunnison, is just 34% full. Each represents savings accounts that have been slowly pilfered to supplement Lake Powell as it declines, preserving the federal government’s ability to generate power there and obscuring the scope of the losses. Last summer, facing the latest emergency at the Glen Canyon Dam, the Department of Interior ordered huge releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and other Upper Basin reservoirs. At Blue Mesa, the water levels dropped 8 feet in a matter of days, and boaters there were given a little more than a week to get their equipment off the water. Soon after, the reservoir’s marinas, which are vital to that part of Colorado’s summer economy, closed. They did not reopen in 2022.
As the Blue Mesa Reservoir was being emptied last fall, Steve Pope kept the Gunnison Tunnel open at its full capacity, diverting as much water as he possibly could. He says this was legal, well within his water rights and normal practice, and the state’s chief engineer agrees. Pope’s water is accounted for out of another reservoir higher in the system. But in the twin takings, it’s hard not to see the bare-knuckled competition between urgent needs. Over the past few years, as water has become scarcer and conservation more important, Uncompahgre Valley water diversions from the Gunnison River have remained steady and at times even increased. The growing season has gotten longer and the alternative sources, including the Uncompahgre River, less reliable. And Pope leans more than ever on the Gunnison to maintain his 3,500 shareholders’ supply. “Oh, we are taking it,” he told me, “and there’s still just not enough.”
On June 14, Camille Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of Interior division that runs Western water infrastructure, testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and delivered a stunning ultimatum: Western states had 60 days to figure out how to conserve as much as 4 million acre-feet of “additional” water from the Colorado River or the federal government would, acting unilaterally, do it for them. The West’s system of water rights, which guarantees the greatest amount of water to the settlers who arrived in the West and claimed it first, has been a sacrosanct pillar of law and states’ rights both — and so her statement came as a shock.
Would the department impose restrictions “without regard to river priority?” Mark Kelly,, the Democratic senator from Arizona, asked her.
“Yes,” Touton responded.
For Colorado, this was tantamount to a declaration of war. “The feds have no ability to restrict our state decree and privately owned ditches,” the general manager of the Colorado River District, Andy Mueller, told me. “They can’t go after that.” Mueller watches over much of the state.Pope faces different stakes. His system depends on the tunnel, a federal project, and his water rights are technically leased from the Bureau of Reclamation, too. Touton’s threat raised the possibility that she could shut the Uncompahgre Valley’s water off. Even if it was legal, the demands seemed fundamentally unfair to Pope. “The first steps need to come in the Lower Basin,” he insisted.
Each state retreated to its corners, where they remain. The 60-day deadline came and went, with no commitments toward any specific reductions in water use and no consequences. The Bureau of Reclamation has since set a new deadline: Jan. 31. Touton, who has publicly said little since her testimony to Congress, declined to be interviewed for this story. In October, California finally offered a plan to surrender roughly 9% of the water it used, albeit with expensive conditions. Some Colorado officials dismissed the gesture as a non-starter. Ever since, Colorado has become more defiant, enacting policies that seem aimed at defending the water the state already has — perhaps even its right to use more.
For one, Colorado has long had to contend with the inefficiencies that come with a “use it or lose it” culture. State water law threatens to confiscate water rights that don’t get utilized, so landowners have long maximized the water they put on their fields just to prove up their long-term standing in the system. This same reflexive instinct is now evident among policymakers and water managers across the state, as they seek to establish the baseline for where negotiated cuts might begin. Would cuts be imposed by the federal government based on Pope’s full allocation of water or on the lesser amount with which he’s been forced to make do? Would the proportion be adjusted down in a year with no snow? “We don’t have a starting point,” he told me. And so the higher the use now, the more affordable the conservation later.
Colorado and other Upper Basin states have also long hid behind the complexity of accurately accounting for their water among infinite tributaries and interconnected soils. [ed. emphasis mine] The state’s ranchers like to say their water is recycled five times over, because water poured over fields in one place invariably seeps underground down to the next. In the Uncompahgre Valley, it can take months for the land at its tail to dry out after ditches that flood the head of the valley are turned off. The measure of what’s been consumed and what has transpired from plants or been absorbed by soils is frustratingly elusive. That, too, leaves the final number open to argument and interpretation.
All the while, the Upper Basin states are all attempting to store more water within their boundaries. Colorado has at least 10 new dams and reservoirs either being built or planned. Across the Upper Basin, an additional 15 projects are being considered, including Utah’s audacious $2.4 billion plan to run a new pipeline from Lake Powell, which would allow it to transport something closer to its full legal right to Colorado River water to its growing southern cities. Some of these projects are aimed at securing existing water and making its timing more predictable. But they are also part of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s vision to expand the Upper Basin states’ Colorado River usage to 5.4 million acre-feet a year by 2060.
It is fair to say few people in the state are trying hard to send more of their water downstream. In our conversation, Mueller would not offer any specific conservation savings Colorado might make. The state’s chief engineer and director of its Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, who oversees water rights, made a similar sentiment clear to the Colorado River District board last July. “There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said. “It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy.”
In November, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis proposed the creation of a new state task force that would help him capture every drop of water it can before it crosses the state line. It would direct money and staff to make Colorado’s water governance more sophisticated, defensive and influential.
I called Polis’ chief water confidante, Rebecca Mitchell, who is also the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. If the mood was set by the idea that California was taking too much from the river, Mitchell thought that it had shifted now to a more personal grievance — they are taking from us.
Last month, Mitchell flew to California for a tour of its large irrigation districts. She stood beside a wide canal brimming with more water than ever flows through the Uncompahgre River, and the executive of the farming company beside her explained that he uses whatever he wants because he holds the highest priority rights to the water. She thought about the Ute Mountain Ute communities and the ranchers of Cortez: “It was like: ‘Wouldn’t we love to be able to count on something? Wouldn’t we love to be feel so entitled that no matter what, we get what we get?’” she told me.
What if Touton followed through, curtailing Colorado’s water? I asked. Mitchell’s voice steadied, and then she essentially leveled a threat. “We would be very responsive. I’m not saying that in a positive way,” she said. “I think everybody that’s about to go through pain wants others to feel pain also.”
Here’s the terrible truth: There is no such thing as a return to normal on the Colorado River, or to anything that resembles the volumes of water its users are accustomed to taking from it. With each degree Celsius of warming to come, modelers estimate that the river’s flow will decrease further, by an additional 9%. At current rates of global warming, the basin is likely to sustain at least an additional 18% drop in its water supplies over the next several decades, if not far more. Pain, as Mitchell puts it, is inevitable.
The thing about 4 million acre-feet of cuts is that it’s merely the amount already gone, an adjustment that should have been made 20 years ago. Colorado’s argument makes sense on paper and perhaps through the lens of fairness. But the motivation behind the decades of delay was to protect against the very argument that is unfolding now — that the reductions should be split equally, and that they may one day be imposed against the Upper Basin’s will. It was to preserve the northern states’ inalienable birthright to growth, the promise made to them 100 years ago. At some point, though, circumstances change, and a century-old promise, unfulfilled, might no longer be worth much at all. Meanwhile, the politics of holding out are colliding with climate change in a terrifying crash, because while the parties fight, the supply continues to dwindle.
Recently, Brad Udall, a leading and longtime analyst of the Colorado River and now a senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, teamed with colleagues to game out what they thought it would take to bring the river and the twin reservoirs of Mead and Powell into balance. Their findings, published in July in the journal Science, show that stability could be within reach but will require sacrifice.
If the Upper Basin states limited their claim to 4 million acre-feet, or 53% of their due under the original compact, and the Lower Basin states and Mexico increased their maximum emergency cuts by an additional 45%, the two big reservoirs will stay at roughly their current levels for the next several decades. If the basins could commit to massive reductions below even 2021 levels for the Upper Basin and to more than doubling the most ambitious conservation goals for the south, the reservoirs could once again begin to grow, providing the emergency buffer and the promise of economic stability for 40 million Americans that was originally intended. Still, by 2060, they would only be approximately 45% full.
Any of the scenarios involve cuts that would slice to the bone. Plus, there’s still the enormous challenge of how to incorporate Native tribes, which also hold huge water rights but continue to be largely left out of negotiations. What to do next? Israel provides one compelling example. After decades of fighting over the meager trickles of the Jordan River and the oversubscription of a pipeline from the Sea of Galilee, Israel went back to the drawing board on its irrigated crops. It made drip irrigation standard, built desalination plants to supply water for its industry and cities, and reused that water again and again; today, 86% of the country’s municipal wastewater is recycled, and Israel and its farmers have an adequate supply. That would cost a lot across the scale and reach of a region like the Western United States. But to save the infrastructure and culture that produces 80% of this country’s winter vegetables and is a hub of the nation’s food system for 333 million people? It might be worth it.
A different course was charted by Australia, which recoiled against a devastating millennium drought that ended 13 years ago. It jettisoned its coveted system of water rights, breaking free of history and prior appropriation similar to the system of first-come-first-served the American West relies on. That left it with a large pool of free water and political room to invent a new method of allocating it that better matched the needs in a modern, more populous and more urban Australia and better matched the reality of the environment.
In America, too, prior appropriation, as legally and culturally revered as it is, may have become more cumbersome and obstructive than it needs to be. Western water rights, according to Newsha Ajami, a leading expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the former director of the urban water policy program at Stanford University, were set up by people measuring with sticks and buckets, long before anyone had ever even considered climate change. Today, they largely serve powerful legacy interests and, because they must be used to be maintained, tend to dissuade conservation. “It’s kind of very archaic,” she said. “The water rights system would be the first thing I would just dismantle or revisit in a very different way.”
This is probably not going to happen, Ajami said. “It could be seen as political suicide.” But that doesn’t make it the wrong solution. In fact, what’s best for the Colorado, for the Western United States, for the whole country might be a combination of what Israel and Australia mapped out. Deploy the full extent of the technology that is available to eliminate waste and maximize efficiency. Prioritize which crops and uses are “beneficial” in a way that attaches the true value of the resource to the societal benefit produced from using it. Grow California and Arizona’s crops in the wintertime but not in the summer heat. And rewrite the system of water allocation as equitably as possible so that it ensures the modern population of the West has the resources it needs while the nation’s growers produce what they can.
What would that look like in Colorado? It might turn the system upside down. Lawsuits could fly. The biggest, wealthiest ranches with the oldest water rights stand to lose a lot. The Lower and Upper Basin states, though, could all divide the water in the river proportionately, each taking a percentage of what flowed. The users would, if not benefit, at least equally and predictably share the misery. Pope’s irrigation district and the smallholder farmers who depend on it would likely get something closer to what they need and, combined with new irrigation equipment subsidized by the government, could produce what they want. It wouldn’t be pretty. But something there would survive.
The alternative is worse. The water goes away or gets bought up or both. The land of Western Colorado dries up, and the economies around it shrivel. Montrose, with little left to offer, boards up its windows, consolidates its schools as people move away, and the few who remain have less. Until one day, there is nothing left at all.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
The most powerful policymakers in the arid Southwest spent three days in Las Vegas, reviewing the grim state of a river that supplies 40 million people from Wyoming to Mexico. Federal and state authorities emphasized the need for collaboration to avert catastrophe, but have been reticent to make sacrifices during negotiations over plans that would reduce demand for water. This year marked the 76th meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association and the event’s first ever sold-out attendance. Journalists, scientists, farmers and city officials packed the conference center at Caesar’s Palace to watch water managers hash out the river’s future in the public eye.
“There’s no substitute for being face-to-face,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas. “It’s a lot easier to talk a little smack, call some people some names, when you’re not looking them in the eye.” […]
The current guidelines for the river are set to expire in 2026, and states are largely focused on coming up with new ones before that deadline. A century-old agreement governs how water is allocated across the arid Southwest, Meanwhile, some experts suggest that agreement, the Colorado River Compact, should be replaced to meet the modern demands of a region with sprawling fields of crops and booming urban populations.
“I think there is some heavy optimism that hopefully everyone will come to something that we can all agree on,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s top water policy agency. “But it is going to take real cuts to everyone.”
As part of a new water conservation program, the Upper Colorado River Commission “is seeking proposals immediately for the voluntary, compensated, and temporary water conservation projects for 2023.”
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are Commission members, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a partner in the new conservation program, according to a statement issued Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.
To be considered for funding, proposals for conservation projects will need to be submitted by Feb. 1, 2023. Details are available here.*
The Commission touts the new program as “a key component of the Upper Division States’ 5-Point Plan to address the impacts of the ongoing drought and depleted (water) storage in the Upper Colorado River Basin.”
The new conservation program is relevant here in the Arkansas River Basin because about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year, up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, are imported from the Colorado Basin according to Colorado Division of Water Resources data.
The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which imports an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water per year. Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West combine to import the other 73,000 acre-feet. Fry-Ark Project water supports local agriculture, cities, towns and industry.
Fry-Ark water and infrastructure also underpin the Voluntary Flow Management Program, which supports the multimillion-dollar recreation economies of Upper Ark communities as well as the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery.
Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell expressed support for the new program in a statement Wednesday. She emphasized, “The most impactful thing that can be done to manage the Colorado River System is to reduce uses in dry years.”
Mitchell noted that Colorado’s “strict administration of water rights based on hydrology” effectively achieves drought-year water-use reductions. “In 2021, administration impacted water use on over 203,000 acres within the Colorado River Basin in Colorado.”
Mitchell cited preliminary data from the Upper Colorado River Commission showing that the four Upper Basin states used 25% less water in 2021 than in 2020” in response to limited water availability.
“We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year,” Mitchell said, “and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future.”
In requesting that others “live within the means of what the river provides,” Mitchell implicates the three Lower Colorado River Basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between the four Upper Basin states and the three Lower Basin states. The Compact requires the Upper Basin states, where most of the precipitation falls, to deliver a 10-year rolling average of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water to Lees Ferry, Arizona, just south of the Utah state line. Of that water, California is entitled to 4.4 maf, Arizona, 2.8 maf, and Nevada, 0.3 maf.
To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf Compact requirement. At a meeting of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee earlier this year, Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.
As the numbers reveal, Lower Basin states’ water usage – more than 2 maf per year beyond the 7.5 maf delivered by the Upper Basin – has trended higher, even as the 10-year rolling average dropped to 11.78 maf for 2012-21.
Specifically, 2019 saw Colorado River flows of 17.75 maf, a rare yearly surplus of 3.8 maf. In 2020, flows dropped to 9.6 maf, 4.5 maf less than the water used that year.
In 2021, flows dropped further, to 7.1 maf. Even with Upper Basin states reducing their water use by more than a million acre-feet in 2021, total water use in the Basin exceeded Colorado River flows by 6.4 maf, dropping water levels in lakes Mead and Powell to record low levels.
* The Upper Colorado River Commission’s Dec. 14 statement notes that full implementation of the water conservation program “is contingent on the passage of pending legislation in Congress” and finalization of an funding agreement between the Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Enough gallivanting around the Mississippi Basin and its rivers; back to the troubled and troublesome Colorado River, currently experiencing its worst dry spell since around 800 CE. The Colorado Rivers, I should maybe say, since for all practical (human) purposes the river is now managed in a quasi-de jure way as two river basins under the Colorado River Compact and subsequent ‘Law of the River’ actions: an Upper Colorado River and a Lower Colorado River.
Previously here, I’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact at its centennial, in what is certainly the worst year in its century. Here are some things I came up with in that exploration, that I don’t think are getting enough attention in our efforts to search our own souls and the soul of the river in the desert as we try to figure out where we are going from here:
1. The Colorado River Compact is not the ‘foundation of the Law of the River.’ The foundation of the Law of the River is the appropriation doctrine: the body of law that bases the right to use the water of the river and its basin (groundwater too, now) primarily on the seniority of use. First come, first served, for any economically beneficial use for as long as the use continues. Appropriations law is basically a powerful growth engine.
The Colorado River Compact, and all the subsequent laws, treaties, acts of Congress, and other consensual agreements involving the river thus become efforts to deal with the consequences of applying a powerful growth engine to an erratic and relatively modest river – and they fall short to the extent that they too cautiously circle around (or just ignore) the problem of a body of law encouraging unlimited demand on a limited resource.
2. The Compact could not do what its creators set out to do, so they settled for an expedient resolution to facilitate development of the River. The Compact was created because Euro-Americans wanted to control a rambunctious river whose erratic flows made it hard to use for civilized pursuits. But the growth logic of the foundational Law of the River (the appropriation doctrine) made six of the seven Colorado River states fear the pace of development of the seventh state, California, if the river were controlled; California could conceivably lay claim to most of the river’s water before the other states really got settled.
The six states thus wanted an ‘overlay’ to the unconstrained law of appropriation that would assure each state of enough water to meet their own future needs at their own pace. Unfortunately, they did not have – could not have had in the 1920s – enough solid information of what their reasonable future needs were. So they settled for an expedient resolution; they divided the river into two basins, above and below the uninhabited canyon region; each basin was given a little less than half the estimated flow of the river to develop, with the upper river basin committed to deliver a fixed amount of water to the lower river basin (75 million acre-feet over any ten-year period).
3. Mistakes were made. Much has been made of the fact that the Compact commissioners selected an estimated flow of 15 million acre-feet of water to divide between the two basins, well above what has been proven to be a more realistic estimate of an average annual river flow of 13 million acre-feet by E.C. LaRue and some other Geological Survey scientists. It was, however, well below the optimistic 16.8 million acre-feet estimate by the Bureau of Reclamation.
It was also an ebulliently optimistic time in America – the advent of the Anthropocene, when we thought we were on the verge of freedom from the stodgy limitations of nature. The commissioners acknowledged that they did not have enough information to accurately divide the waters of the river seven ways, and were content to leave that task ‘to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information.’ We now know that they should have listened to the USGS scientists, but it is easier and kind of superior to tsk-tsk as ex post facto Monday morning quarterbacks, than it is to acknowledge and understand – maybe even regret the loss of – the spirit of the times when the mistake was made.
The Compact commissioners have also been faulted for ‘leaving the Indians out of the Compact.’ That is not entirely accurate; what they said was that ‘Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.’ But what was the obligation of the United States to the Indian tribes?
On the one hand, in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court had decided, in a case involving an Indian reservation in Montana, that when the federal government reserved public lands for any specific purpose, such as an Indian reservation, that it also implicitly reserved enough water to carry out that purpose. In the case of an Indian reservation, this meant enough water to teach the Indians to be farmers rather than hunter-foragers – meaning irrigation water, in the West.
But on the other hand, when the Compact was created in the early 1920s, the federal government was aggressively pursuing the ‘soft genocide’ of forced assimilation. Between 1900 and 1925, the number of Indian youth essentially kidnapped into ‘Indian Boarding Schools’ swelled from around 20,000 to more than 65,000. The official policy was ‘kill the Indian to save the man.’ The Compact commissioners were all white professionals receiving mixed messages from the government, and might be expected to think, even hope (river gods forgive them), that any Indian water claims might fade away if government policy succeeded – which it didn’t, no thanks to federal Indian policies before or since. And a reserved water obligation for the reservations remains an untransacted and pending commitment.
So yes, the Compact kicked some cans down the road, that it’s now time to pick up and deal with. But no one seems to be saying anything about a much larger and more consequential Compact mistake…
4. Dividing a desert river basin into two river basins is not a good idea. It worked – sort of (Arizona didn’t accept it) – as a temporary fix to break the logjam of not knowing enough to make an equitable seven-way division of the waters. What made the two-basin Compact work at all, sort of, was the fact that, until the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, the river itself, flowing unconstrained past Lees Ferry, kept the water supply (nearly all from the Upper River Basin) united with the growing water demand (mostly in the Lower River Basin).
But once the big dam near Lees Ferry was in place, the supply-demand distribution became a management problem that gradually succumbed to bad power politics. The Bueau gave the Lower River Basin its Compact allocation and more, regardless of growing water supply problems upriver, and the Upper River Basin developed a large supply of justifiable but unproductive resentment. The Compact, which confused ‘equitable’ with ‘equal’ in its division between two basins, is broken by the dam that turns it into two rivers, one supplying the other in ways both unequal and inequitable. It’s not the ‘structural deficit’ per se, but the refusal to address it, that breaks the Compact.
So – what can we do?How do we muddle forward from where we are now? No one is asking me, but of course I have some thoughts….
First and foremost, we should reunite the two river basins into one squabbling river basin (with transbasin extensions). Drop the expedient Compact solution of two river basins – a mistake perpetrated by subsequent ‘Law of the River’ measures, and finally fatal when the Colorado River Storage Project Act enabled building a wall – literally – between the two river basins.
This reunion would have to start with a consensual seven-state agreement – a new compact, if you will, to execute the task deemed impossible in 1922: a seven-state division of the river’s use. After a century of development, this has been achieved, de facto, and equitably enough. The lower river basin states get the consumptive use of almost twice as much water as the upper river basin, but they spread it over far more people and quite a bit more (and more productive) ag land.
This will not be easy, of course – but nothing ever is in the Colorado River region. California and Arizona have gotten so used to using ‘undeveloped upper river basin water’ that they’ve forgotten that that ‘surplus’ hasn’t existed for decades. They think the ‘structural deficit’ is an act of God about which nothing can be done, rather than just the consequence of their growing on borrowed water, a loan now being called in. But the hardest part for the lower river basin will come when the firm numbers for present use apportionments by state all have to be converted into percentages of the diminishing whole river – which the upper river basin states have already been doing, living closer to the vagaries of a desert river. The upper river states will no longer have to fear a call from the lower basin states, so long as they stay within their apportioned percentage of what’s there.
The real reunion of the basins into one river might begin when those in the lower river basin acknowledge that the water supply for the river’s desert lands comes mostly from snowfall in mountains in the river’s headwaters. This suggests that the downriver users of a desert river should accept some responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of the river’s mountain headwaters, their water supply. And those in the upper river basin would need to acknowledge the need for that help, especially if it is financial.
‘Maintenance and improvement’ of the water supply? Can we ‘improve’ the water yield from a river’s headwaters? An undigested fact about the mountain headwaters of the Colorado River Basin is the scientists’ consensual estimate that somewhere around 90 percent of the precipitation that falls over the river basin does not make it into the river. It either returns fairly quickly to the heavens as water vapor, or soaks into the ground to be transpired by trees, grasses and other plants back into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that as much as a third of the precipitation that falls is lost through sublimation in the high headwaters: snow and ice being vaporized by sun and wind without even turning into water first.
Some quantity close to another third of the precipitation is transpired through the forests that form a broad band around the headwaters reaches of the river. Contrary to Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot, the forests are not ‘father’ to the rivers that work their way through the forests; the forests are just some of the first major ecosystems that depend on the river’s water for their life. We love and need the forests, and they do provide shade and shelter for the snow that makes it through the trees to the ground – but they also drink a lot of water (more as the ambient temperatures increase), and not always for their own betterment; the density and age of forests we have protected from cleansing fires result in the consumption of a lot of water by big old forest trees not really getting enough to be healthy.
Those forests are almost entirely managed by the U. S. Forest Service, management that must include the long-term health and well-being of the forest itself rather than just short-term commodity production. But are there ways to manage a healthy forest that maximizes the Forest Service’s 1897 organic act charge ‘to secure favorable conditions of water flows,’ as well as (or instead of) the charge ‘to furnish a continuous supply of timber’?We don’t really know, because the Forest Service has not paid as much attention to optimal water management as it has to optimal timber management. We do know, however – for one example – that timber managers favor denser stands to produce tall trees with less branchiness, but that density increases the amount of snow intercepted by trees, which increases snow loss through sublimation.
To even learn how to maximize water yield from the headwaters’ rocks, ice and forests will require experimentation, trying things out, and it will require creative scientists and lots of boots on the ground that the perpetually under-funded Forest Service cannot afford. If, however, all forty million users of the Colorado River’s water thought of themselves as part of the whole river’s watershed, top to bottom, they might be willing to pony up a pittance for the health and vitality of the headwaters that produces their water. This is already happening to a modest extent; some of the big dogs in the Lower River Basin – the Metropolitan Water District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Project – are contributing funding to a cloud-seeding project in the river’s headwaters, to increase snowfall from selected storms. That is a beginning.
And the next steps? Well, at some point, we have to descend into the cellar foundation of the Law of the River, and figure out how to adapt the frontier instincts of the appropriations doctrine to a civilization of 40 million. As Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s Director of Water Resources said, just last week at the meeting of the Colorado River Water Users convention: ‘The single biggest roadblock to solving the problem of stabilizing the river is the priority system.’
There will be more on this imagined reuniting of the two rivers and their basins. Stay tuned.
Southern Nevada’s water boss is calling on other Colorado River basin states to “do the math and face reality” as they work toward finding a way to stabilize the dwindling river that supplies water to 40 million people in the Southwest. Speaking during a panel at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas on Thursday, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger said California and Arizona are going to have to shoulder the brunt of the unprecedented cuts the federal government says are needed next year in order to keep the Lake Mead and Lake Powell from crashing to points that would put hydropower and water delivery operations at risk — a possibility that is far closer than previously thought….
Since 2000, California and Arizona have accounted for nearly 70 percent of the overall water consumed annually along the Colorado River, with the majority of that water going toward agriculture irrigation.
“I’m a big believer in the law, I’m a big believer in food security. But I’m an even bigger believer in math,” Entsminger said. “When you’re cutting 4 million acre feet out of 12, and three-quarters of the use are downstream of Hoover Dam, that’s where the cuts are going to come.”
Without any plan from the states in place, the federal government has started to move forward with a plan to augment prior drought contingency plans, and one of the options it is exploring is unilaterally mandating cuts to states’ water uses in order to protect critical water elevations at the Colorado River’s two major reservoirs. Forecasting from the Bureau of Reclamation that assumes continued dry conditions across the basin show that Lake Powell could fall far enough to jeopardize hydropower production by as early as next summer, while Lake Mead could hit that same point by spring of 2025. A recent analysis by the Southern Nevada Water Authority showed that roughly 1.5 million acre feet is lost along the Colorado River system each year to evaporation and in transit as water flows downstream, losses that at this point are mostly unaccounted for in the allocation of water rights among among the seven states and Mexico that pull from the river.
Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that water lost to evaporation and other system losses do need to be accounted for moving forward, but said the “single biggest” roadblock to stabilizing the river is the priority system itself, where the oldest water rights are first in line.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June tasked the seven Colorado River basin states to develop a plan to cut water use from the river by as much as 4 million acre-feet starting next year, or about 30 percent of the river’s recent annual flows, in order to prevent that future. One deadline came and went in August with no deal in place. States have continued to work toward finding some form of consensus in recent months, but nothing concrete has emerged…
In an interview Friday, Touton admitted that it is “very much an expedited timeline,” but said she has full confidence that something will be developed between the seven states over the next five to six weeks.
“It is what the river and the communities need and demand for this moment,” she said…
In October, the bureau kicked off the process of modifying the current drought guidelines for the Colorado, and will look at any proposals submitted by the states while also working to develop a plan that would allow the federal government to take unilateral action and mandate cuts if need be. Another deadline of sorts comes Tuesday, the last day for states to submit proposals for how to modify those drought guidelines, but states would have until the end of January to continue working toward coming to an agreement.
First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association Twitter Fest.
Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):
“Everything all at once, yesterday.” That’s how a federal water manager described dealing with the Colorado River at a conference of water users in Las Vegas this week. The river faces a crisis fueled by overuse and amplified by climate change — and as Wayne Pullan, the upper Colorado River regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stated, officials are taking an all-hands approach.
“We joke within the region that we’re going to change our slogan” to the Latin phrase for “everything all at once, yesterday,” Pullan said during a meeting Wednesday.
The conference comes on the precipice of action as federal water managers with the bureau continue to push Colorado River users to cut back and put forward a set of consensus-based policies to start stabilizing the river’s quickly declining storage reservoirs in a matter of months.
At stake is water used by about 40 million Americans in seven Western states, from Wyoming to California, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, is 28 percent full. Lake Powell, upstream, is 24 percent full. The low reservoirs give states that tap into the river little room to negotiate, and there are few options left other than significant cuts.
Earlier this year, the federal government, which operates infrastructure across the watershed, called on the seven states to cut massive amounts of water to stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In addition, the federal government is seeking comments from the states, tribal nations and the public about new operational policies for managing the reservoirs in the coming years.
Those comments are due Dec. 20. But the states will have another month — until the end of January — to negotiate a consensus-based solution that federal officials said they will weigh before taking unilateral action. In the absence of a consensus set of policies, David Palumbo, the bureau’s deputy commissioner, said the agency is also preparing a federal alternative.
He emphasized the effects of climate change reducing the amount of water running off into the river from snowpack, urging water users to think of new tools to address long-term aridification.
“We can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past to be adequate for the future,” he said.
In an interview, John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the state’s negotiator, said Colorado River states, which have had side meetings this week, are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”
The Las Vegas metro area, which gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, has prepared for low-water levels at Lake Mead for decades, implementing aggressive urban conservation measures, recycling and an intake to get water from the bottom of Lake Mead.
When asked if Nevada could be facing further cutbacks, Entsminger said past efforts should be considered but he added that the state is “certainly willing to be part of the solution.” What such a solution looks like, even if a framework for cuts is agreed upon, remains an open question.
The monumental task of what comes next: Governance of the Colorado River is diffuse, with power and water distributed differently among states, Native American tribes, irrigation districts and cities. For nearly two decades, the states have worked to cut back on their water use. Over that time, in a series of incremental deals, water users agreed to cut about 1.3 million acre-feet (one acre-foot of water is about enough water to fill a football field to a depth of one foot).
Now the states need to cut about two to four million acre-feet — and they are being asked to do so in a matter of months, not decades. Much of those cuts will fall on water users downstream of Lake Mead. Of the states drawing on Lake Mead, Arizona and California account for the bulk of that use. The two states are wrestling with how to divide cuts among each other and among water users in each state, given a century of legal agreements about how to share shortages.
Still, they are starting to make some progress toward cuts. The three states that draw on Lake Mead submitted 32 proposals to receive federal compensation for conserving water, according to Rebecca Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But it’s likely that more painful cuts are going to be made, and some users will have to make hard choices. And states above Lake Mead, including Colorado, are also looking at compensated conservation.
“We have to accept the situation that we are in and we need to reduce demands,” she said. “All of us — every sector, every state, every water user… We have to accept that we cannot cling to our entitlements or allocations. If they are not there, none of that matters. It does not matter.”
Hydrology is dictating the agenda: For years, a motivator for the states to cut water use was the threat and uncertainty of federal intervention. That is still on the table. But in many ways, the physical hydrology of Lake Mead and Lake Powell are also dictating the timeline for action. With another winter of low runoff — the amount of water moving from snowpack into the river — both reservoirs soon risk falling to trigger elevations that would threaten water and power supplies.
In other words, if the reservoirs continue to drop, the cuts will be physical realities.
“Hydrology will dictate more than policy,” said Chuck Cullom, director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, urging water users to take real action that results in lowering demands.
“And the alternative to inaction is brutal and entirely obvious,” he added.
But after years of discussing the issue, the time to act is running out.
“It took us five years to negotiate a five-year [drought plan],” Entsminger said during a panel Thursday. “And we don’t have five months to come up with an operation plan for 2023 and 2024. So it’s past time. I can look at all six microphones up here and dozens of people across this room, and I can give your well-worn talking points. It’s time to set it aside and get real.”
This is a climate change story: Even without climate change, the Colorado River would likely be facing a shortage. It has long been known that the Colorado River is overallocated — there are more rights to water on paper than there is actual water in the river, at least in many years.
But climate change has undoubtedly amplified the problem.
At a meeting on Wednesday, Anne Castle, the U.S. Commissioner at the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the “real enemy” is not another state or economic sector. It is climate change. [ed. emphasis mine]
Over the last two decades, far less water has entered the river, further worsening the imbalance between water supply and demand. Even in years with near average precipitation, the Colorado River has seen below average runoff, attributed in part to dry conditions and poor soil moisture.
Like with so many issues related to climate change, addressing the problem is forcing officials to grapple with injustices and inequalities embedded in the systems governing the Colorado River. The founding documents for the river’s governance largely ignore the rights of Native American tribes and the ecosystems that sustain wildlife and plants throughout the Colorado River Basin.
In looking at the climate-caused crisis on the Colorado River and a world with less water to go around, water officials are beginning to grapple with some of these longstanding injustices.
Native American tribes hold the rights to roughly 20 percent of the Colorado River, but they have been excluded from past decisions about water use. That has started to change. On Thursday, top federal water officials held meetings with tribal leaders from across the Colorado River.
“We all have our own individual issues when it comes to water,” said Timothy Williams, chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, whose reservation extends to Arizona, Nevada and California.
“I think it’s coming to a head. At some point, there’s decisions that are going to be made,” he said on Thursday. “We just want to make sure that we’re part of the decision-making process.”
The annual meeting of the Colorado Water Users Association is a bit like the shadow puppets of Java – projections onto a public stage of things hinted at but largely unseen behind.
On display in public this year, in the formal CRWUA panels, was a frank discussion of the river’s problems that I found unprecedented.
Behind, in the realm of the puppeteers, was even more frank talk about the shape of a deal that would be needed to halt the reservoirs’ declines. It’s still a longshot, with a narrow path to success and a very tight deadline – whatever “consensus plan” the seven Colorado River Basin states come up with has to be delivered to the Department of Interior by the end of January.
But going into CRWUA, I could see no path. Now one is dimly visible.
MANAGING BASED ON INFLOW, RATHER THAN RESERVOIR LEVELS
At the heart of the art of the possible here is shift in the discussion of a management framework, from the well-worn path of management by reservoir levels (if Powell “x” and Mead “y”, do “z”) to a system based on inflows. If less water flows in, you have to take less water out.
Phrased that way, it sounds so obvious, but it’s a major shift from the way the system was built and has been managed for a century. The reservoirs were built to store surplus when it’s wet to be used when it’s dry. I try not to use the phrase “paradigm shift” loosely, and it’s not entirely clear that it applies here. But the change that we’re seeing bears a lot of the hallmarks of the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s original formulation of the concept – the accumulation of enough anomalies that you can no longer stick to the old way of thinking.
I point here, by way of metaphor, to the accumulating shipwrecks emerging from the shores of Lake Mead.
What the hydrologists call the “mass balance problem” makes this inevitable. In the long run, you can’t take more water out of a reservoir than flows in. But the realization earlier this year that Reclamation’s engineers are uncomfortable using Glen Canyon Dam’s lower elevation outlet works has place the mass balance barrier squarely within the range of the next few years’ planning. If you believe them (and, importantly, the Department of Interior seems to), then there’s no way around shifting pretty quickly to a management regime in which the water you release from Lake Powell has to match up each year with the amount that flows in.
SO WHAT CHANGES IN RIVER MANAGEMENT WHEN YOU SHIFT TO AN INFLOW-OUTFLOW REGIME?
As soon as you adopt a policy that says that releases from Lake Powell are essentially limited to what flows into the reservoir – which is the practical equivalent of “protecting elevation 3,490” or whatever line the river management community chooses above that to offer a safety buffer – 3,525 used to be the number people talked about, but we blew right through that last March – you trip two significant management triggers:
you face the very real prospect of Colorado River flows past Lee Ferry dropping below the 10-year standard set by the compact, triggering either a compromise or a very ugly legal fight
you face the very real prospect of deep cuts for water users in the Lower Basin, because you pretty quickly turn Lake Mead into an inflow-outflow system too – and/or very ugly legal fights
But going into CRWUA I believed the only way to tackle those problems was with a federal intervention. Now there seems a hope of a collaborative solution – of which I’m a big fan.
RELAXING THE LEE FERRY CONSTRAINT
There were encouraging signs this week that compromise might be possible on the first point, that the Lower Basin might agree to look the other way at a Lee Ferry shortfall, if the Upper Basin states are willing to get past their “it’s a Lower Basin overuse problem” mantra of recent years and kick in some reductions of their own. My read on the situation is that it won’t take a lot of water – folks in the Lower Basin get the fact that it’s primarily their problem. But I’m not in the negotiating room. This will almost certainly be harder than my usual naively optimistic expectation, right?
CUTTING LOWER BASIN USE
Regardless of how the Lee Ferry thing plays out, the hydrologic reality is that there will have to be deep Lower Basin cuts – far deeper than anything contemplated to date. The fact that extreme scenarios are being discussed among the states, rather than having state officials step aside and make the federal government impose them (or, in reality, as newly named Upper Colorado River Commission member Anne Castle reminded us, having climate change impose them) was encouraging to see in the shadows of the CRWUA puppets visible to us outsiders.
That’s incredibly important to the Lee Ferry point, because if the Lower Basin can get together and take on the herculean task of coming up with a formula to agree to the necessary cuts rather than having them be imposed, the Upper Basin is more likely to be willing to contribute without their longstanding worry that anything they kick in will just be sucked up and used in the Lower Basin.
In other words, legitimate action by the Lower Basin states makes Upper Basin action more possible.
My twinkly collaboration fanboy smile should not mislead you into thinking this will be painless – there will be a lot less water for cities and agriculture, and it would be a legal and moral failing if Tribal sovereigns are not brought into this discussion. All of those things make this really hard.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
All of this – an implicit relaxation of the Lee Ferry constraint, voluntary deep cuts in the Lower Basin, and an Upper Basin commitment to contribute some water – seemed to me beyond reach before we gathered at CRWUA. But behind the scenes there was serious, good faith attention to all of them, without the people making the proposals getting laughed out of the room. As Southern Nevada’s John Entsminger told the Nevada Independent’s Daniel Rothberg, the basin states are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”
Alex Jack says he’s not charged enough for the water he uses at his Imperial Valley farm. Because the Colorado River water shared by him and his neighboring farmers who make up the vast agricultural economy in the middle of the desert is so cheap, he says, farmers have little incentive to conserve.
Jack, though, spends a lot of money to save water through a huge system of irrigation hoses that push water to the root of his Little Gem lettuce plants, drop by drop. The cost to run his 3,200-acre ranch is astronomical for the area, reaching upwards of $1 million a week during the busy season to power and pay for what functions like his own water district, circulating used water back to the top of his fields and storing excess in a private reservoir.
“Everything I do is to be a better farmer,” Jack, 64, said. “If I happen to conserve water in the process, that’s great. But they’re subsidizing the people that aren’t conserving water … It’s like politicians giving away free ice cream to everybody, then everyone is happy.”
The “they” Jack refers to is the Imperial Irrigation District, a public water and power utility that manages miles of canals delivering Colorado River water to farmers and residents of the valley.
Colorado River water was virtually free in the early 20th Century when pioneers dug the valley’s first canals that would later transform this desert landscape into a $2 billion agricultural industry. Imperial Valley farmers now pay about $20 an acre foot to transport Colorado River water to their fields, a price unchanged since 2011. An acre foot is enough water to fill an acre of land, one foot deep or how much an average California home uses both indoors and outdoors.
Farmers next door in San Diego County pay between $799 and $1,109 per acre foot. Even the Coachella Valley Water District, just north of Imperial Valley, charges farmers about $37 per acre foot, nearly twice what the Imperial Irrigation District charges its farmers.
Because water is so cheap, Imperial Irrigation District doesn’t make enough selling it to cover expenses on water revenues alone. Instead of charging farmers the full cost of water transportation to the valley, the district reinforces its budget by selling conserved water to San Diego, among a few other regions, at higher prices.
In the late 1990s, San Diego decided to diversify its water sources after a drought caused cutbacks from its only supplier, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District. San Diego made a deal to pay for water conservation on Imperial Valley farms in exchange for some of their Colorado River water. In the water policy world, that deal is known as the QSA or “quantification settlement agreement,” and it’s one of the largest transfers of water from agriculture to an urban area in U.S. history.
But IID doesn’t spend most of that money on conservation. It uses a large portion of those San Diego dollars to pay for employees that manage water deliveries and maintain canals and operate on good financial footing.
“Without the QSA, the growers would either have a very small water department and not the best service or they would have a rate increase by now,” said Tina Shields, water department manager at the Imperial Irrigation District.
Shields thinks increasing the water rate is a good idea but it puts the board elected to run the Imperial Irrigation District in a tough spot. The board is set to gain two new directors this year.
A member of that board, JB Hamby, who was elected in 2020 said he’s been floating the rate increase idea with farmers recently. The 26-year-old director acknowledged the issue has been mired by controversy in the past as farmers and the board worked through disagreements over water conservation largely sparked by the San Diego deal.
“We’re in a new era with a new set of (board members) and realities we’re experiencing,” Hamby said. “Let’s take a fresh look at what we’re doing and set rates according to what it actually takes to deliver the water here.”
Jack’s argument is simple: If farmers paid the true cost of water delivery, that could generate millions for farm conservation, and could free up more drought-stretched Colorado River water for others in the basin.
The true cost of water delivery varies depending on who you ask. Most agree, including director Hamby, the price hovers around $40 an acre foot – double what farmers pay now.
Jack is first to say his opinion is probably an unpopular one. But another key farming leader in the valley agrees.
Mark McBroom, 63, farms citrus and Medjool date groves on the valley’s northwestern corner flanked by sandy, arid federal land. He chairs the Agricultural Water Advisory Committee, a group of over a dozen water users appointed by elected Imperial Irrigation District board members. McBroom said he’s been pushing a higher water price for years.
“You have a lot of farmers on the fence because they don’t use the (conservation) program that much,” McBroom said. “And they enjoy the $20 price for farming their hay and their grass and things like this. They’re not a big proponent of this.”
One of those on-the-fence farmers is Trevor Tagg, 36, of West-Gro Farms, which grows dehydrated onions and forage crops, like alfalfa and Bermuda grass and sunflower.
“Everything is incredibly expensive right now in these forage commodities that I live and die by,” Tagg said. “Right now, the market for those crops is very high. But if they fall apart, and if we stick ourselves with more than double our water rate, we might solve the Lake Mead problem but you won’t see shit for forage commodities. I’m fearful of that.”
Shrinking Colorado River Resources Squeeze Farms, Cities
Lake Mead is the Colorado River’s largest reservoir located behind Hoover Dam just outside of Las Vegas. The water level there signals the health of the rest of the river, which powers a massive agricultural industry and provides drinking water for millions of people living in seven states and two countries.
The West is experiencing such severe climate change-driven drought, the water level at Lake Mead dropped lower than ever before this year. To refill the reservoir, the federal government is coaxing states to reduce water demand by fallowing farms and flipping lawns into desert landscape. If states can’t agree, and water levels keep dropping, the federal government can set mandatory cuts following “the law of the river.”
That law is really a set of agreements and contracts made over a hundred years ago when expansionists first settled the West. They dictate a pecking order as to who loses river water depending on availability at Lake Mead. Imperial Irrigation District is virtually last in line to be cut by force.
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are first in line and already face mandatory water cuts next year. California, under those century-old agreements, is in the clear for now. But political pressure from states that aren’t is mounting, so some of California’s biggest water users – including Imperial Irrigation District – tentatively agreed to voluntarily conserve 400,000-acre feet in 2023. California’s full share is 4.4 million-acre feet. Imperial Valley has a right to 3.1 million of that..
While that 400,000-acre feet savings seems a drop in the bucket, farmers in Imperial Valley, whose legal rights to water remain ironclad, will have to come up with over half of that. It ruffled feathers.
On Nov. 17, the Imperial County Farm Bureau sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal body that determines what happens along the Colorado River, restating their commitment to conserve an additional 250,000-acre feet. The bureau scolded the feds for failing to push other Colorado River basin states into a deeper state of mandatory drought conservation. That harsher scenario would force a canal serving Arizona cities like Phoenix to take an even larger hit and require other areas of California to take a cut for the first time.
Conserving more water in Imperial Valley “will however come at a great expense to our farmers, the IID and disadvantaged community whose main source of income comes from agriculture,” the letter reads.
The Bureau of Reclamation, in hopes of securing voluntary commitments to use less water, offered in August to pay farmers up to $400 per acre foot of water conserved. That’s not enough, the bureau wrote, to meaningfully impact the water levels at Lake Mead.
It is, however, more than Imperial Irrigation District pays them from San Diego dollars. Payments to add equipment like sprinklers, drip irrigation and other accouterments that help efficiently water crops average about $217 per acre foot of water saved. That reimbursement rate has dropped from $285 per acre foot in 2013 when the farm conservation program really kicked off.
Ranchers like Larry Cox, whose family farmed Imperial Valley since the 1950s, has long held Imperial Irrigation District’s payments weren’t enough to cover ever-skyrocketing labor and diesel costs. Cox said valley farmers mistrust their utility. He supports raising the price of water to reflect the cost of delivery but wants certainty that extra money would be spent on the land itself.
“Imperial Irrigation District needs to be held accountable for doing a good job of delivering that water,” Cox said.
Farmers Fear Fed’s Biggest Stick
A looming threat lingers over Imperial Valley that, if the drought worsens and states relying on the Colorado River can’t agree to save lots of water, the federal government might force farmers to fallow their ground, in other words, stop planting and, therefore, irrigating. That threat has a name: the 417 proceeding.
Farmers met the deal to give San Diego a portion of Imperial Valley’s water back in 2003 with fierce resistance at the start. So much so that the federal government leaned on the 417 proceeding, which served as a notice the government could cut how much water Imperial Valley farmers ordered that year from the Colorado River, if the valley didn’t come to terms with San Diego.
The 417 dictates water use should be both “reasonable and beneficial,” a broad definition in Western water law. It’s a box to check for all Colorado River water users each year, but during times of scarcity – like right now – water users are waiting to see whether the federal government might decide certain uses are unreasonable, like watering lawns or flooding crops with water, the traditional irrigation method in Imperial Valley.
“As water has become tighter and tighter the meaning of 417 is pretty clear,” Jack, the farmer, said. “You can’t just go out there and waste water. Using pump backs or drip irrigation puts you in that category of reasonable and beneficial, and therefore, no one should be able to take away your water.”
In other words, he views voluntary conservation as preemptive protection against the heavy hand of the federal government.
During a June meeting, fears of a 417 process resurfaced. Imperial Valley farmer Ronnie Leimgruber criticized the Imperial Irrigation District for poor management of the farming conservation program backed by San Diego dollars. Over the last two years, Leimgruber said, he spent $2.5 million on water conservation projects on his land but the utility still hasn’t reimbursed him.
“The only way we can improve our chances on a 417 is with water conservation projects on farms,” Leimgruber said. “The only way we can do that is if the district improves the way we do on-farm conservation. We need a way to insulate ourselves from the 417.”
Hamby said the utility’s had limited staff resources to focus on changes to the program made by previous leadership. He hopes the new board could use years’ worth of data from the program to make payments more predictable.
In the meantime, water agencies across the West are waiting to hear what the federal government might say about their water orders for 2024.
“It’s important we understand we’re being scrutinized and doing our part protecting our resources and maximizing beneficial use,” Hamby, the water district board director said.
The situation on the Colorado River continues to get worse. For months, there has been abundant news about falling lake levels (Lake Powell is below 25% full, and Lake Mead is hovering below 30% full) and while some areas of the west had a terrific monsoon, other areas were left high and dry. Now consider a forecasted La Nina winter (could be the third in a row,) which generally features a warmer and dryer season and reduced snowpack throughout the West, including the Rockies; the confluence of a grim water year is staring at us in the face.
Without being overly melodramatic, the reality is that unless some serious decisions are made, and fast, we could be facing the difficult reality of very little to no water being able to pass through Glen Canyon Dam, in essence creating a Grand Canyon without the guarantee of a flowing Colorado River. For anyone who has been on the river, whether on a raft trip or hiking to Phantom Ranch or trout fishing at Lee’s Ferry, this is a frightening vision. But what would someone who simply peers over the edge of the Canyon at the South Rim, enjoying the expanse and color and light of the distant rocks and buttes – does it matter to them that the small, silver ribbon in the distance is actually dry, rather than wet? Does it matter to people that the very thing that helped create, and certainly supports the web of life, culture, and connection of one of the grandest landscapes in the world, could be reduced to a mere trickle if we don’t take action – and soon? Are we ok with that scenario?
Let’s review what all this means in a practical sense. You may know that the Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal government agency that oversees/manages many of these big reservoirs and the Colorado River system overall, publishes a set of forecasts periodically to try to “project” what lake levels might be – usually up to two years into the future. These are called “24-month studies” and they take scores of different scenarios into account to forecast where the lake levels might be given varying amounts of runoff, soil moisture, snowpack, different temperature possibilities, and how much water is being used in different places across the entire basin. This all feeds into planning how much water needs to be stored, or how much can be released and when, for Lake Powell, Grand Canyon, and Lake Mead, among other federal facilities within the system. These predictions impact millions of people across the Southwest, and across the country when we start to consider that the vast majority of vegetables grown for our winter food supply rely on Colorado River water.
On average, about 8 million acre-feet of water (just one acre-foot is a football field of water, one foot deep, or just over 326,000 gallons) flows from Lake Powell to Grand Canyon in a normal year. But what happens if that number is drastically reduced, or water can’t safely flow through the dam at all? What happens then? Already this year, nearly a million-acre feet has both been sent downstream (from storage in Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir) and held back in Lake Powell to slow the fall of the lake. Right now, there is only about 7 million acre-feet flowing into the Canyon in 2022. But levels are still declining, and we are getting closer to the point where Glen Canyon Dam cannot generate electricity, and potentially even worse, where water really can’t safely flow through the dam at all. What if those flows ultimately consisted of about 10% of what flows today – and all from seepage and springs dotting the length of the canyon itself?
Now back to the most recent 24-month study, where Reclamation projects through what they call the “minimum, most, and maximum probable” hydrology projections. For the first time in the history of these projections, the minimum probable projection indicates that Lake Powell could decline to a level where no electricity can be generated (below elevation 3,490ft) by as early as December of 2023. But that says nothing about the efficiency of that power, since the lower the lake gets, the weaker the power generation capability is.
Below that, water would need to be released through tubes that have never been tested for sustained use. Limited space exists where water can still flow through the dam, supplying water to Grand Canyon and Lake Mead, but not generating any power. Overall, this space is only 120 feet, then the lake would be at “dead pool” (at elevation 3,370 ft.) which is in essence exactly how it sounds – a pool of water not flowing through the dam at all.)
So how much more water needs to be held back in order to keep Lake Powell on life support? John Fleck, Eric Kuhn, and Jack Schmidt contemplate that very question as they set forth the rationale for doing keeping Lake Powell functional in an article they authored last week. We know that the Federal government has emphatically said that they will protect “critical infrastructure” which means Glen Canyon Dam and both the hydropower and water supply systems that depend upon it. We also know that there are many rules that dictate how this whole system is managed. The Colorado River community is comprised of 7 states, as well as the Republic of Mexico and the Department of Interior, along with stakeholders that include municipalities, irrigators, hydropower customers, recreationalists, and environmentalists. Each hold varying interests in different parts of the Basin, but all must find a way to participate as a whole within the Basin that sustains us all. Critical to considering the Basin going forward also requires recognition of the 30 Federally recognized Tribal nations which have long been left out of the decision-making process around the river. Their rights and role as it relates to the river can no longer be overlooked. Their opportunities to participate are gaining and they should be even more deeply included in decisions going forward. In short, nobody can go it alone, and everyone needs water security and predictability to plan for the future.
Fleck, Kuhn, and Schmidt argue that now might be the time for Reclamation to impose a restricted flow through the dam of only 5.5MAF – ~ 30% less than “normal” flows and still another 13% less water than is flowing into Grand Canyon today. And last week, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed “Moving forward with administrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below seven million acre-feet per year, if needed, to protect critical infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam.” This proposal would attempt to keep at least some water flowing through the hydropower turbines (and further lower the levels at Lake Mead) but would keep electricity flowing in both. But what impact would this have on the Grand Canyon ecosystem, including the four species of native fish, the coldwater fishery above Lee’s Ferry, and the amazing diversity of plant, animal, and bird life throughout the Canyon? What would happen to the vibrant and sought-after rafting industry, which between both private and commercial trips, ferry’s more than 26,000 people per year through one of the most amazing, humbling, and majestic landscapes on earth? And maybe most importantly, where does this leave the cultural and spiritual considerations that water flowing through the Canyon has for the various Tribal communities that consider the Colorado River and Grand Canyon sacred places – essential to their way of life?
Can everyone come together with a solution to at least hold the river and the two reservoirs it feeds to a level that would at least triage the situation? If not, what then? While hypothetical, we need to recognize that a nearly dry or severely depleted Grand Canyon in a few short years is more plausible than ever. For anyone who has ever done a river trip leaving at Lee’s Ferry, you know that the Paria River comes in just a mile or so below the put-in, but that is a highly unpredictable river – often either pretty small or nearly dry much of the year, or a raging torrent during the monsoon season. The next “reliable” water coming into the Canyon is at the Little Colorado River, 75 miles from the dam – and 75 miles is a long way when there is so much riding on the health and sustainability of this ecosystem. Some water from seepage around the dam does occur, but with lowering lake levels, does that seepage get reduced as well? So many unknowns are staring us all in the face.
The upshot is that this is a scary time in the Colorado River system, with many options to consider – rules and laws, and treaties to follow (or change) and lots of people depending on getting it right. And increasingly important in all this, is that getting it right means getting it right together – the possibility of litigation or other legal action would define the worst-case scenario, as any opportunity for compromise and collaboration and finding solutions together instantly stops the minute the first lawsuit is filed.
The 22-year drought and its associated aridification of soils and plants, the exposure of more than 40 million people to water shortage, the whole country being impacted by the potential of reduced food production, and in the middle of all this, one of the seven wonders of the world and the ecosystem, and people, who are deeply connected to this place. Where do we go from here?
Lower water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which have left several boat ramps and docks high and dry, are likely the “new normal” for years to come, according to federal officials.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent water-balancing adjustment under the Colorado River drought contingency plan, announced this month, maintains current plans at Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border. Those plans entail releasing an extra 500,000 acre-feet of water through April as per actions implemented in May. However, Flaming Gorge — along with two other major Upper Colorado River Basin reservoirs, Blue Mesa in Colorado and Navajo in New Mexico — remains a primary backup water source and may likely be tapped for more water, according BOR officials.
The BOR, meanwhile, will reduce releases from the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell by 523,000 acre-feet of water from December through April, then allow that same volume to flow downstream to Lake Mead during the summer months. Future adjustments will likely include siphoning more water from Flaming Gorge, according to BOR officials.
Ongoing incremental adjustments are intended to sustain hydropower generation at the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams as a 22-year drought — exacerbated by human-caused climate change — continues to push the Colorado River Basin into a water scarcity crisis.
Taken all together, that means the bathtub rings of exposed shoreline at Flaming Gorge represent what is likely a “new normal” for the reservoir, Drought Response Operations program manager for the Upper Colorado Basin Region Dale Hamilton told WyoFile.
“We will continue to work with our Basin partners to consider additional releases implemented under the Upper Basin [drought contingency plan] from the upstream Colorado River Storage Project initial units, which includes Flaming Gorge,” Hamilton said.
Much depends on winter precipitation and spring runoff, Hamilton added, so any decision regarding further actions at Flaming Gorge is likely months away. “Those actions are still being discussed,” he said.
After decades of relatively steady water levels at Flaming Gorge, the reservoir is undergoing unprecedented changes as water managers release extra water in an attempt to to help balance water levels among major downstream storage reservoirs along the Colorado River.
The BOR released an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir in 2021 as part of the Colorado River drought contingency plan, dropping the surface level by about 5 feet. The current “extra” release of 500,000 acre-feet of water, combined with lower-than-average natural infill (just 57% of average from April through July) diminished the reservoir to 72% capacity in November, according to the BOR.
The reservoir has dropped by about 9 feet this year, exposing vast areas of lakebed at the upper reaches and water-ring patterns on canyon walls in some areas.
Recon Angling fishing guide Shane DuBois tried his luck ice-fishing Monday in 7 feet of water where, normally, the water depth should be nearly 40 feet, he said.
“A lot of [fishermen] have been fishing different spots for burbot,” DuBois told WyoFile. “I think [lower water levels are] going to start messing up everything, especially with all the sediment that’s pushed up on the rocks where [fish] usually spawn. It’s not going to be conducive for successful spawning for, really, any fish.”
Recreational access is becoming increasingly difficult, as water recedes from boat ramps. The ramp at the Anvil boat launch area on the west side of the reservoir in Wyoming was closed recently, DuBois said, while the Buckboard Marina in Wyoming continues to try to keep boat docks in the water.
“We’re not naive,” DuBois said. “Even if we have a big-snow year, they’re probably just gonna take all that water right back out.”
The Park Service has cut a raggedy new dirt road (“4×4 recommended”) north of Hemenway Harbor along Lake Mead’s receding shoreline so you can still get in to go fishing and do the beach thing.
Mead was at elevation 1,043 and change as I rode it on my bike yesterday afternoon, with lunch and time on my hands to ponder the stakes. You could see the uppermost Las Vegas water pipe, exposed to the winter air, and the stranded intake from the World War II-era Basic Magnesium factory.
I passed three Lake Mead shipwrecks, the media icons of the great collapse, ruin porn of the Colorado River. I was happy, I guess, to finally bag the pictures for myself. I guess?
It was my annual pre-Colorado River Water Users Association Lake Mead visit – a bike ride along the reservoir, a trip to Hoover Dam, some quiet time in Boulder City before heading into the madhouse of Las Vegas and CRWUA and a Colorado River in crisis.
MANAGING IN CRISIS MODE
The challenge right now is a very practical one. We’ve no longer time the sort of vague generalizations I got when I turned to ChatGPT for help – “Implementing stricter water usage regulations and reducing water waste can help bring the supply and demand of the Colorado River into balance.” Great. Thanks. How we gonna do that?
The Colorado River brain trust has to write new rules, and it has to write them now, in a very specific way, with little time or room for error.
I have long had a dodge when reporters or my students or whoever asked me what I think we should do: It doesn’t matter what I think we should do, I would tell them. What matters, I would say, is what emerges from the seven states and the federal government, and increasingly the Tribes and others who who now, rightly, find themselves at the negotiating table(s).
Unfortunately, what has emerged from that process is shipwrecks emerging from Lake Mead.
So I’ve dropped the shield and begun thinking about how I would rewrite the rules, if anyone asked me. Come to think of it, the Federal Government has asked me, along with all the rest of you, via this Federal Register notice. You’ve got a week left before your assignment is due.
Basically, we need to do two things.
First, we need to rewrite the rules governing releases from Glen Canyon Dam to protect Lake Powell from reaching critically low levels that, by forcing the use of the dam’s lower outlet works, might threaten the structural integrity of the dam. We do this by setting a maximum release from Powell based on the current year inflow.
Second, we need rules to cut far more deeply into Lower Basin water use, like right now – far deeper than the rules we’ve got now. They’re just not sufficient. We have to include evaporation and system losses as part of each Lower Basin state’s allocation.
This is where the current rules lay out how much water is to be released each year from Glen Canyon Dam. Note the quaintly anachronistic “Lake Powell Active Storage” column on the right, with “dead pool” – zero active storage – at elevation 3,370.
If Reclamation decides it doesn’t trust the dam’s outlet works, which sit down there, then suddenly “active storage” doesn’t start until elevation 3,490, the level of the power plant intakes.
For now at least, 3,490 is the new dead pool.
That would mean that at elevation 3,525, rather than having 5.93 million acre feet of “active storage” – the amount of water above “dead pool” – we’ve really got less than 2 million acre feet of really actually usable, releasable water in Powell. The whole notion of “balancing” active storage in Mead and Powell, so central to the ’07 Guidelines, now has to look completely different.
When you get close to dead pool, you’ve got a “run of the river” system, which means that the only water that leaves a reservoir is the amount that comes in. Given that we’re apparently redefining that for Powell on the fly, the new versions of 6C and 6D somehow have to restrict releases from Powell to not much more than comes in. Basically starting now, and for the foreseeable future, until we can begin to refill Powell or drill some new tubes at the bottom that we trust.
A simple approach to the new rule here might be rewrite the release rules when you’re in the “Mid-Elevation Release Tier” (below 3,575) and the “Lower Elevation Release Tier” (below 3,525) to cap releases to inflow minus evaporation. That would set a sort ratchet that would prevent a further decline in Lake Powell below its current dangerously low levels.
You could start the year by capping Powell releases at the 24-month study’s “minimum probable” unregulated Powell inflow level, with the option of raising the release an April review based on the “most probable” unregulated inflow. Minus evaporation. You’d have to subtract evaporation from that.
Other than that, the 6C and 6D rules could stay the same.
SAVING LAKE MEAD
As the modeling presented by Reclamation in its webinars two weeks ago shows, if you operate Powell the way I describe under low flow scenarios, you can crash Mead in a hurry. We need rules that are ready for that.
Taking evaporation and system losses off the top before we begin handing out water is a start. The “structural deficit” is real, it’s a result of not taking evaporation and system losses into account, and it’s written in shipwrecks emerging from the depths of Lake Mead.
Right now evaporation and system losses are in the ballpark of 1 million acre feet per year, but to be on the safe side, let’s set them at the 1.2 million acre foot per year level in the classic Reclamation “structural deficit” Powerpoint slide.
So the cuts in section 2D of the Interim Guidelines would have to be rewritten, with Arizona, Nevada, and California taking a proportional share of system losses right off the top.
You can do this some really complicated ways, based on the distance downstream of each user’s intake – so Imperial and Yuma would take a bigger system losses hit, and Las Vegas (pulling straight out of Lake Mead) would only suffer evaporative loss.
That seems like a recipe for scientized litigation, so my proposal is simple: Everyone shares this equally (sorry, Nevada friends).
That would leave us with a base allocation that looks something like this:
The cuts in the big ’07 Guidelines/DCP allocation tables would then be deducted from these numbers. So under this scenario, if we drop into the Mead elevation 1,040-1,045 tier, the total allocations would be:
Notably, this gets us to the 2 million acre of cuts Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said we need in her testimony to Congress last summer.
This obviously doesn’t touch the Upper Basin. The process Interior is using for this round of crisis management – a straight up revision to the ’07 Guidelines – doesn’t seem to offer a clear path to force the Upper Basin to come up with contributions of their own. For now, I’m OK with that. Since the ’07 Guidelines were signed, the Upper Basin has delivered more than 10 million acre feet of water above the required 8.25 million acre foot annual requirement. Despite that, the Lake Mead shipwrecks are emerging from the shallows. The key here is clearly to get Lower Basin overuse under control.
But I don’t think in the longer term the Upper Basin is off the hook. Reclamation’s modeling clearly shows a risk of the Upper Basin slipping below its 82.5×10 obligation if we have a few more bad years. We need a plan to deal with that. And it’s also a matter of fairness, in my view. We all have to contribute.
My scheme for Upper Basin contributions involves the next wet year – figuring out how to forego some of the Upper Basin storage we’ve got and get that water into Lake Powell instead. Suggestions for how to write that rule are welcomed – bonus if anyone can figure out how to fit that into the rewrite of the ’07 Guidelines currently underway.
I still believe in the power of the collaborative governance framework we’ve developed in the Colorado River Basin. As Assistant Secretary of Interior Tanya Trujillo told me when I was moderating her appearance at last summer’s Getches-Wilkinson Center conference, we’d be in a lot worse shape without it.
For what it’s worth, ChatGPT agrees: “Collaboration and cooperation among states and water users is crucial in finding solutions to the supply-demand imbalance on the Colorado River.”
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
The dam’s innards are a time capsule of 1960s engineering. Bolts as thick as a forearm hold together the hulking metal casing for hydroelectric generators. Here, the Colorado River surges through turbines, producing power for about 5 million people across seven states. Now, the Colorado River is on the decline, and the dam faces threats that could soon render it useless after decades as a symbol of American engineering achievement. In a room that evokes the inside of a submarine, Bob Martin opened a heavy door to reveal one of those turbines. A gleaming silver cylinder whirred along inside.
“This is all original,” he said. “This is like pulling your grandpa’s 1964 Cadillac out of the garage and it’s in the same condition it was in 1964. That’s the world class maintenance that we’ve done – generations have done – at Glen Canyon.”
Below the hydropower intake is the pipe which allows water to pass from Lake Powell to the river on the other side. Water levels could conceivably drop below that, too. At that point, the only pass-through would be a set of four rarely-used backup tubes near the bottom of the concrete. Those tubes, known as the “river outlet works,” were originally meant to be a failsafe pr to pass water in high flow years, and aren’t wide enough to carry the legally required amount of water from one side to the other. A century-old agreement mandates that the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico must deliver a specific amount of water downstream to the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada each year. The bulk of that water starts as high-mountain snow in the Rockies. Because winter snowpack varies widely year to year, the Upper Basin states resolved to add some insurance in the form of Lake Powell. Since the 1960s, it has served as a way to bank excess during wet years, and ensure enough would flow to the Lower Basin during dry years.
Nearly six months have passed since Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton first asked the Western states to come up with a plan to cut back on water use from the river next year by as much as 30 percent, but a cohesive proposal from the seven states that pull from the Colorado that supplies water to some 40 million people has yet to emerge. Things have only gotten worse along the river since Touton’s request, and that decline shows no signs of slowing down…
“The risks we saw then have only further materialized given the projected and plausible hydrology,” Touton said during a Dec. 2 meeting to discuss the options the federal government is looking at in lieu of a deal between the states…
Only piecemeal proposals have been made public thus far, including a proposal from California water agencies to conserve up to 400,000 acre-feet of water annually, or about 9 percent of the state’s annual allocation from the river, in exchange for the federal government making a commitment to contribute to Salton Sea stabilization efforts. The Southern Nevada Water Authority and nearly 30 other municipalities have signed a memorandum of understanding committing to drastically reducing the amount of thirsty decorative turf that lines their respective cities, an idea that took root in the Las Vegas Valley last year.
For users in the Yampa River Basin, which lacks any reservoirs controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation, Rossi said the focus needs to be on how to exist with the water that is there, not what the [Colorado River Compact] theoretically allows…
Lindsey Marlow, executive director of Friends of the Yampa, said many strategies to help with drought issues, erosion and overall river health are outlined in the newly updated Yampa Integrated Water Management Plan. Completed in September, the update involved dozens of volunteers and stakeholder groups working together for nearly four years.
“The recommendations that came out of (the management plan) were to ensure we are managing a river in balance, so that all user groups can use it effectively while keeping it healthy and sustainable,” Marlow said…
Marlow said the plan has 20 recommendations ranging from increased education for users to adding new infrastructure to the system. Recommendations include conducting a return flow study to understand the impact of water used for agriculture, securing funding to upgrade diversion structures in Routt and Moffat counties and creating a centrally located dashboard for a variety of data concerning river health, among other recommendations. Rossi pointed to a number of initiatives the Upper Yampa district is leading in the management plan, such as exploring water diversions on Coal Creek and Morrison Creek that could add water to district-owned reservoirs and installing a network of soil moisture monitors in the basin.
“I’m not too concerned with what the Bureau of Reclamation asks us to do. I’m more concerned about how can our water users survive through drying times because they’re here to stay,” Rossi said. “When it goes dry, we just don’t have anything to use.”
Chorus of experts warn climate change has rendered old assumptions outdated about what the Colorado River can provide, leaving painful water cuts as the only way forward
When the Colorado River Compact was signed 100 years ago, the negotiators for seven Western states bet that the river they were dividing would have ample water to meet everyone’s needs – even those not seated around the table.
A century later, it’s clear the water they bet on is not there. More than two decades of drought, lake evaporation and overuse of water have nearly drained the river’s two anchor reservoirs, Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border and Lake Mead near Las Vegas. Climate change is rendering the basin drier, shrinking spring runoff that’s vital for river flows, farms, tribes and cities across the basin – and essential for refilling reservoirs.
The states that endorsed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 – and the tribes and nation of Mexico that were excluded from the table – are now straining to find, and perhaps more importantly accept, solutions on a river that may offer just half of the water that the Compact assumed would be available. And not only are solutions not coming easily, the relationships essential for compromise are getting more frayed.
With the Compact’s shortcomings and the effects of climate change and aridification becoming as clear as the bathtub ring around Lake Mead, previous assumptions of how much water the river can provide and the rules governing how it gets divvyed up must be revised to reflect the West’s new hydrology. One thing is certain among experts and Colorado River veterans: Water cuts are in the short-term and long-term forecast for major cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, as well as farmers from Colorado’s West Slope to growers in California’s Imperial Valley near the Mexican border.
“You don’t have any other arrow in your quiver right now except to reduce use,” Pat Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told a gathering of Colorado River water interests this fall. “There are no other arrows.”
The River’s Changing Math
Predicting the amount of water the Colorado River can provide in a given year has always been a challenge. The river’s flow is famously erratic, dictated by the size of the often-fickle Rocky Mountain snowpack and other variables such as soil moisture and changes in temperature.